‘Miseducation’ in Mississippi: Racial disparities persist in discipline, access to advanced classes

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A young woman selecting some books in the library

Mississippi students have steadily improved on state tests in recent years, but a closer look at federal civil rights data and state-level test results reveal disparities in students’ access to higher level coursework and discipline among ethnic groups.

Last month, ProPublica released “Miseducation,” an interactive database filled with data on school discipline, staffing, and opportunity measures for more than 96,000 public schools and 17,000 school districts in the country during the 2015-16 school year. These schools self-reported their data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

“Miseducation” comprehensively contains that data as well as information from other sources. Mississippi Today examined ProPublica’s Mississippi data. Here are some takeaways:

Although black students made up half of the student population, ProPublica data shows white students were 2.1 times more likely to be enrolled in an Advanced Placement (AP) course than black students, and 1.9 times more likely to be enrolled in one than Hispanic students.

The Mississippi Department of Education recently released figures on AP course participation and achievement from the 2017-18 school year. Nearly 14,000 exams were taken last year and of those, 32 percent received a passing score of three or higher.

The number of students taking these courses has nearly doubled since 2013, said MDE Chief Academic Officer Nathan Oakley. Advanced Placement course participation is now a component in annual district accountability ratings, which Oakley said is one possible cause for the increase in participation.

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Nathan Oakley of the Mississippi Department of Education presents Mississippi Succeeds, the state’s new plan detailing how it will comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, to the State Board of Education in June of last year.

“Students who achieve a qualifying score on an AP exam prove they have met a national standard for mastering college-level material,” said state superintendent of education Carey Wright. “AP success among African-American and Hispanic students this year indicates the achievement gap in advanced coursework is narrowing.”

The gap in regular coursework is not narrowing, however — testing data from recent school years shows while student achievement as a whole have improved, the divide in performance between different races and ethnicities have either remained the same or widened slightly.

The data comes from student performance on the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program, an annual state test administered to students in math and English language arts for grades 3-8, and English II and algebra for high school students. The state releases test results broken down by subgroups including race and ethnicity, economic status, and other demographics.

Oakley said the department releases subgroup data so the public is aware of these disparities.

“The goal there was to shine a light on where those achievement gaps exist,” Oakley told Mississippi Today. “What’s in the public eye gets attention.”

There are a number of factors that can contribute to these gaps, Oakley said, but an important one is making sure teachers and students both understand there are high expectations regardless of a student’s background. Finding qualified staff to teach the students also plays a role.

“The ability to find effective teachers in large numbers, and in some cases certified teachers, is a challenge,” Oakley said. “Many of these challenges we’ve got in Mississippi are not unique to our state. The achievement gap is not unique to us, the teacher shortage is not unique to us.”

ProPublica’s data shows at the time, 13 percent of full-time teachers in the state had less than two years of teaching experience. MDE data shows 3 percent of teachers in Mississippi were uncertified last school year, meaning they haven’t yet passed the necessary requirements to be licensed by the state. Although this makes up only a small percentage of the state’s educators as a whole, many of these teachers are concentrated in poor districts.

For example, in the nearly all-black Holmes County School District, more than a third of teachers were not certified, according to MDE data. U.S. Census data shows 49 percent of families in the district live in poverty.

Mississippi First

Angela Bass

“Students in predominantly black districts are more likely to be served by teachers that have zero to three years of experience,” said Mississippi First director of policy Angela Bass. “The competencies that you need to effectively serve students, especially in high poverty districts, takes skill and experience. We see that students in these districts are being served year after year by teachers that haven’t accumulated that experience yet.”

When asked about the ProPublica data, Bass said it was not surprising.

“Historically we’ve seen that we live in a state that worked to keep students separated by race,” Bass said. “I’ve seen just a lack of investment in equity.”

“When I think of equity, I’m thinking about not just providing the same for every student in Mississippi, but intentional focus on providing the right resources to students who need them the most,” Bass said.

When it comes to discipline, the  ProPublica data shows three quarters of students that received an out-of-school suspension were black, 21 percent were white, and 2 percent were Hispanic. For expulsions, 67 percent of students were black, 29 percent were white, and 2 percent were Hispanic.

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Adrienne Hudson

Former educator and administrator Adrienne Hudson, now the founder of grassroots education nonprofit RISE Inc., said now that she’s out of the classroom she sees discipline issues differently.

“Administrators, we cannot see the forest for the trees,” Hudson said. “We’re thinking ‘Hey, I have 400 other students in the school who need my help and I can’t have these five stop the other ones from learning.’ But to be honest, we are failing those five or six that are continually being suspended or being expelled.”

There are low-cost fixes for this issue, Hudson said, like reconfiguring teachers’ daily schedules so they have more time for professional development in addition to planning periods for their classes.

“We have to change our mindset, change our culture in our schools around who are troubled,” Hudson said. “They’re still a part of our community. You can’t just suspend them away.”

Like Hudson, Bass said the types of discipline and students who receive it is influenced by teachers’ preparation and experience levels. First-year teachers in particular may not be equipped with the skills to handle a student posing problems in the classroom, she said.

“I think (discipline) has something to do with biases that teachers have, but I also think that more effective teachers can more competently deal with disciplinary issues,” Bass said. “I think it’s a recipe for disaster if you have students with more needs and then you have teachers that are less prepared to serve students with more needs.”