OPINION: Lessons from Mississippi: Is there really a miracle here we can all learn from?

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The phrase “Mississippi Miracle” trips off the tongue. Who doesn’t like alliteration? More pointedly, who doesn’t like rising test scores?

In recent months, the phrase has been associated with Mississippi’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card.

In 2022, Mississippi’s fourth graders eligible for free lunch (a marker used to estimate poverty) performed significantly higher on the NAEP reading test than similarly low-income children in 43 other states and the District of Columbia.

A mere nine years earlier, Mississippi’s fourth grade students living in poverty had NAEP reading scores near the bottom of the state scores list.

Although there have been skirmishes about whether or not these test score gains in Mississippi are real, and what they mean, we believe that they indicate genuine, although modest, progress in the literacy skills of young Mississippi schoolchildren.

The gains are due to the steps Mississippi took to support the teaching of literacy skills in early elementary classrooms and not, as some have suggested, due to the manipulation of the student population taking the test or to aligning Mississippi’s learning standards specifically to the NAEP standards.

NAEP is the only assessment used in all states and territories — a small subset of schools from each state participate — and the test’s design allows for state-by-state comparisons in a way no other assessment can.

Mississippi’s NAEP performance gains accompanied new policies that began at roughly the same time: The Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA), passed by the Mississippi legislature in 2013, is primarily known as a policy to hold back third graders who have not demonstrated basic reading proficiency on a state assessment.

Related:  Tennessee law could hold back thousands of third graders in bid to help kids recover from the pandemic

But the law is more complex than that one policy, as it focuses on capacity-building as well as mandates for K-3 reading instruction.

A big component of the LBPA and the substantial private investment that preceded it was a new vision for reading instruction. Some commentators call it “The Science of Reading” and highlight a narrow emphasis on phonics instruction. But, as is true for any complex phenomena, teaching reading and learning to read require knowledgeable practitioners able to adapt instruction to students’ needs.

Literacy is about making meaning of the world, and that meaning emerges through the study of content as much as from using knowledge of letter patterns to sound out unfamiliar words.

In Mississippi, there has been a push, backed by private funding through the Barksdale Reading Institute, to build greater understanding of the importance of code-based instruction and word recognition, including phonics and phonemic awareness (the ability to hear individual sounds within spoken words), alongside other components of reading that the Barksdale Reading Institute calls “The Reading Universe” — language comprehension (including background knowledge and vocabulary), reading comprehension and writing.

The LBPA provided numerous resources to support all of these aspects of better reading instruction.

The act included state funding for assistant teachers in grades K-3, access to literacy coaches and additional training. Reading Universe, for example, provided online classroom videos, interviews with teachers and detailed guides to support the teaching of specific literacy skills, such as identifying phonemes and drawing on background knowledge to make meaning of a text.

It would be a tragedy if policymakers in other states were to take away a surface lesson like “retention works” without a deeper understanding of the supports needed to bring about change.

Additionally, for many years leading up to and following passage of the LPBA, the literacy faculty at teacher preparation institutions discussed how to prepare teachers to teach reading in the early grades.

These supports, we suspect, have been influential in better preparing Mississippi elementary school teachers and changing instruction in K-3 classrooms. But they have also been hit or miss, with some schools and educators deeply understanding multiple facets of literacy instruction and others more exclusively relying on curriculum packages emphasizing the decoding of words.

Recognizing this hit or miss aspect is important. In Mississippi, there are geographic and demographic disparities in school funding, teacher availability and access to advanced coursework.

Schools in the Mississippi Delta underperform most schools. We can celebrate the literacy gains across the state, but we must also seek solutions to address disparities and uneven policy implementation.

We are not persuaded that the third grade retention policy has been a magic bullet; retention effects vary across contexts. Even in Mississippi, the evidence that retention boosts achievement is ambiguous.

A recent working paper by economists Kirsten Slungaard Mumma and Marcus Winters compared students who scored just below the threshold for third grade retention on the Mississippi ELA test in 2014-15 with those who scored just a bit above that threshold, tracing the students’ performance for several years.

They found that retained students outscored similar students who were not retained on the state ELA test. But this difference did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance, even with a sample of over 4,000 students.

Mumma and Winters acknowledge, however, that it is not possible to discern which features of the retention policy account for the upswing in subsequent ELA scores.

Students retained under the policy receive close monitoring and intensive reading interventions. This enhanced instruction, supported by intensive teacher coaching, may be what really matters.

Related: NAACP targets a new civil rights issue—reading

All we know for sure is that scores on a single, high-profile ELA test have gone up, and it’s worth taking time to understand why.

It would be a tragedy if policymakers in other states were to take away a surface lesson like “retention works” without a deeper understanding of the supports needed to bring about change, and the challenges still facing students in Mississippi — and similar states.

In education, miracles are often mirages; demographic inequalities in resources and achievement are stubborn; and quick-fix policies are no substitute for steady hard work.

Devon Brenner is the director of Social Science Research Center and a professor in the department of Teacher Education and Leadership at Mississippi State University.

Aaron M. Pallas is the Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

This story about Mississippi reading scores was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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