The truth about education in our state

By Douglas Carswell
June 17, 2024

Mississippi’s Department of Education was quick to trumpet signs of an improvement in education standards.  According to a gushing press release they put out, Mississippi has risen up the national education rankings from 48th to 30th over the past decade.
“Great!” you might think.  “It’s wonderful to see an improvement in education standards in Mississippi”.  But has there really been an improvement? 
The Department of Education pronouncement was based on a recently released report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which itself used data from the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). 

I took a closer look at the NAEP data behind what was being claimed, and it is clear that any improvements in Mississippi’s education ranking owe more to a decline in standards in other states, rather than to any substantive improvements in our own.

Between 2015 and 2022, Mississippi went from 46th for fourth grade reading to 18th. Progress, yes, but the average fourth grade NAEP score in reading only rose from 214 to 217.
In other words, the improvement in ranking in fourth grade reading scores since 2015 is almost entirely a reflection of the fact that standards fell in other states. 

The data also shows that while there has been an improvement in the percentage of fourth graders who are proficient in reading in Mississippi, the improvement happened before 2019.  It almost certainly reflects the enactment of a package of literacy laws in 2013, which shifted the way Mississippians teach reading towards phonics, rather than any change in policies since. 
There has not been progress in the past five years, and any change in our ranking reflects the fact that other states have just done worse than we have.

In 2022, Mississippi ranked 44th in eight grade NAEP math, compared to 46th in 2015.  Not only was there little relative improvement, the state’s average NAEP eighth grade math score actually fell from 271 in 2015 to 266 in 2022. 

It is profoundly misleading to present evidence of Mississippi’s relative improvement as evidence of any kind of absolute rise in standards. 
Here are some facts that the Department of Education could have included in their press release, but didn’t:

  • 82 percent of 8th grade kids in Mississippi were not proficient math in 2022. 
  • 69 percent of 4th grade kids in Mississippi were not proficient in reading in 2022.
  • Almost 4 in 10 fourth graders in 2022 did not even reach the basic reading standard.

Instead of propaganda, the Department of Education could take a look at its own data which shows that almost one in four Mississippi students — 108,000 children — are chronically absent from school.
The rate of chronic absenteeism has in fact skyrocketed from 70,275 in 2016-17 to 108,310 in 2022-23.
“So what?” you might say.  “Of course, officials are going to present what they do in the most positive light”.
It matters deeply because until we have an honest conversation about the true state of education in our state, we aren’t going to see the changes Mississippi desperately needs. Mississippi is now surrounded on three sides by states that have embraced universal school choice.  In Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana, the money will follow the child.  Families in those states will get control over their child’s share of state education funds.

Change only came about because there was a recognition of reality, and realization that reform was urgent and essential. 
The reason there has been so little progress towards school choice in our state is because too many policy makers believe our education system is doing better than it actually is.


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