July 5, 2023

Michael Hiltzik: How Mississippi gamed its national reading test scores to produce ‘miracle’ gains

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It is one of the true constants in education–any time someone proclaims an education miracle, it isn’t. Michael Hiltzik is a Los Angeles Times business columnist, and while education may not be his beat, he knows someone gaming numbers when he sees it. Others are jumping on the Mississippi reading miracle bandwagon; he is unconvinced.

Mississippi implemented what appeared to be an aggressive attack on its literacy shortcomings in 2013. Its Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA) required that pupils who failed to pass a reading test at the end of their third-grade year be held back.

While repeating third grade, they were to receive intensified instruction. Funds were appropriated for “summer reading camps” for poorly performing kids. New teachers were required to show proficiency in literacy education before receiving their certifications. The educational system was reoriented toward the “science of reading.” That includes phonics, a method that teaches reading by breaking words up into sound bites of one letter or more, and showing students how to link them together into words.

The raw NAEP figures showed Mississippi’s fourth-graders narrowly besting the national figures overall in the 2022 test, as Somerby correctly noted. Even when broken down by subgrouping the state’s kids outscored their national peers — white Mississippians beat the national average for white kids, Black kids beat the national average for Black kids, Hispanic kids beat all Hispanic kids, and lower-income kids of all races outscored lower-income kids nationwide.

Truly a miracle.


Some statistical readings should have raised questions among the miracle claimants. One is that Mississippi’s Black and Hispanic fourth-graders still scored much lower than white children — and the gap had not changed over the 10 years of the new regime.

In fact, it widened to 28 percentage points in 2022 from 25 points in 2013. The same thing happened with Hispanic pupils, who fell short of white kids’ achievement by 22 points in 2022 versus 21 in 2013.

Moreover, whatever gains had shown up in Mississippi’s fourth-grade scores had vanished by the eighth grade, when all students notched exactly the same scores in 2022 as they had in 2013. A teaching program whose gains evaporate over a four-year span doesn’t much warrant the label “miracle.”

What’s the real story? Drum and Somerby focused on the so-called “third-grade gate” implemented by the literacy program — the requirement that third-grade underachievers repeat third grade. In Mississippi, almost 10% of third-graders have been getting held back, a higher proportion than in any other state. (Some may have been held back more than once.)

The statistical result of this policy should be obvious. If you throw the lowest-ranking 10% out of a statistical pool, the remaining pool inevitably looks better. Drum went so far as to add those dropped pupils back into the calculation. He found that the gains from 2013 to 2022 completely disappeared. “In other words,” he remarked, “the 2013 reforms had all but no effect.”

Read the full piece here. 

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