While the state has recently touted rising test scores, a Mississippi Today analysis shows students in the Delta score about 16 percent lower than the statewide average.

In August the Mississippi Department of Education released its annual Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) scores, which showed 39.8 percent of students scored at the proficient or advanced level on their English Language Arts exams and 43.9 percent of students did the same on the math assessment.

But in Delta-based school districts, 23.7 percent of students scored at the proficient or advanced level with English Language Arts exams and 27 percent of students scored that in math.

The disparity stems from the Delta chronically receiving fewer resources from the state, education experts say.  

“Without a doubt poverty affects everything. Now does that mean these kids don’t have the ability? It does not mean that at all. These kids have outstanding ability. But the question becomes with that outstanding ability, what do they get from birth until the time that they are getting to schools?” said Eddie Anderson, director of Delta Area Association for Improvement of Schools.

For example, U.S. Census Data shows that average income in Shelby, Mississippi – a Delta town that houses a high school – is around $21,000. Statewide average income is about $40,000.

“These kids need that extra help. Some children go home for the summer and they don’t pick up a book the whole Summer. That means that child instead of growing is moving backward,” Anderson said. “I can’t give them a Summer school program with my dollars if I don’t have those dollars. Those dollars need to be where school districts will do that.”

The nonprofit provides schools in the Delta with professional development training and support, but Anderson said these districts need additional resources to help bridge the gap.

MDE is providing significant training for pre-K through third grade with reading support, Anderson said, “and that’s great … (but) the areas that we’re talking about – more has to be done.”

Maurice Smith, superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated School District, agreed that additional resources are crucial in helping bring historically underserved districts up to the same achievement levels as the rest of the state.

“In a situation where you’re playing catch up, the more resources you have to address those specific needs of those students the better off you are,” Smith said.  

A variety of issues can factor into disparities like the ones in Delta districts, MDE officials say. “… They can be influenced by various factors that may include access to a consistent level of high-quality Tier I instruction through the K-12 continuum due to lack of access to high-quality teachers; increased rates of turnover for district and school leadership; children entering school (pre-k and kindergarten) on a performance level below their peers who have had regular access to literacy-rich environments; and high rates of poverty,” said Dr. Sonja Robertson, director of school improvement at the MDE  in a statement to Mississippi Today.

State Superintendent Cary Wright said in a statement sent out with the 2018 MAAP test scores, that this year’s assessment results show the major strides that have been made toward improving student achievement across the state.

“Our students are making historic gains in achievement levels and have made Mississippi one of the fastest improving states in the nation,” Wright said. “Mississippi students are rewriting the story about public education in our state.”

English Language Arts (ELA) and math scores in the Delta did improve from 2017 to 2018, but not at the same rate that the state rose.

Statewide ELA scores increased 3.1 percent from 2017 to 2018; in the Delta they rose 1.8 percent. Statewide math scores improved 5.3 percent in the past year as opposed to the Delta where those scores went up 3.8 percent.

How MAAP proficiency changed in the Delta compared to the state as a whole, from 2017 to 2018Source: Mississippi Department of Education

For the past two years of testing data released, MDE also released an achievement gap analysis that identifies disparities in subgroups of Mississippi student population. These groups are determined by race, gender, socioeconomic status and whether a student has a disability.

The analysis also notes that “Mississippi aims to eliminate, or close, the assessment proficiency gap between student subgroups by 2025.”

Mississippi Today previously reported that Wright said MDE is “looking at developing additional resources for districts and teachers to address the gap.”

Anderson said that while every education professional is responsible for helping students reach their potential, significant steps need to be taken to address regional disparities.  

“People continue to talk about the underperformance of the Delta,” Anderson said. “Talk is cheap. If you want to see the Delta do better then you’re going to have to do more for it.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.