CARSWELL/Has education really improved?

CARSWELL/Has education really improved?


I love hearing good news about Mississippi. When I read recently that there had been an improvement in education standards in our state, I was thrilled.

But then I looked at the data. The claims being made that there has been a ‘Mississippi miracle’ are not, sadly, substantiated by the facts.

Claims of a big improvement in literacy performance are based on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores for 4th graders. These show that between 2019 and 2022, Mississippi moved up the national rankings, from 29th to 21st.

But when you look at the actual scores, the average reading score for a 4th grader in 2019 was 219. By 2022 the average reading score for a 4th grader had fallen slightly to 217. Far from improving, the scores went down.

The reason Mississippi appeared to rise up the rankings is because reading performance for 4th graders in other states fell even faster.

If you look more at the same data set, it turns out that only one in three 4th graders in 2022 were proficient in reading. A similar number are at or below basic level reading. I would not call that a ‘miracle’.

Those 4th graders tested in 2022 had had to endure almost two years of Covid lockdown disruptions, often having to be absent from the classroom. Despite that, the average score fell just 2 points. What does that say about the added value of being in a classroom?

As for the NAEP results for math, between 2019 and 2022, average 4th-grade scores in our state fell from 241 to 234. In other words, there was both an absolute and relative fall in performance. NAEP scores for 4th graders are only one way to measure education outcomes. Another benchmark is the ACT scores, which look at how students are performing at the end of 11th grade. The facts show falling proficiency, with an average ACT composite of 18.3 in Mississippi in 2016 falling to an average ACT composite of 17.4 in 2022. Again, these are the indisputable facts.

There are only four school board districts in the entire state in which the ACT composite score had not fallen over those six years.

Mississippi also uses state student performance scores from a variety of assessments to calculate reading and math proficiency. For the first time in more than two decades, the cumulative scores in 2022 for reading and math proficiency in Mississippi school districts appeared to show improvement. A sign of progress? Not really.

The apparent uptick in district proficiency scores between 2016 and 2022 in math and reading reflects the fact that in 2022 they stopped including end-of-course testing for seniors. The year before that change was made, there was no evidence of an improvement in standards.

The ‘progress’ in these state scores and consequential decline in the number of F-rated school districts is almost entirely a reflection of eliminating the end-of-course tests for seniors which raised proficiency percentages and increased the graduation rate.

If performance has not in fact improved, why might education bureaucrats and campaign organizations want us to believe that there had been progress? You only need to ask the question to answer it.

Doctoring data to sustain a fictitious narrative about improving education standards does our state a grave disservice.

Back in the old Soviet Union, local officials use to annually report record levels of agricultural output and an extraordinary increase in the number of tractors produced. Was this proof that the system was working? Quite the opposite. No one wanted to be the one not to report record rises. It did not pay to challenge the dodgy data.

The education system in Mississippi is not working either. It is deeply disingenuous to claim improvements in performance when the data shows a decline. Those making these claims must know the truth, but they chose to gloss over it. Mississippi deserves better than that.

Education progress is possible when the vested interests that run public education are no longer able to run the system in their interests. Progress will only come about when families in our state are given control over their child’s education tax dollars – as is about to happen in Arkansas.

The sooner people realize the truth about education standards in our state, the sooner they will demand parental power to put it right. The vested interests know that which is why they aren’t being honest with you.

Douglas Carswell is the President and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

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