Results are in: Mississippi students No. 1 in the country for reading gains

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Students prepare for the ‘third-grade reading gate’ in the Jefferson County School District on June 17, 2019.

Mississippi was the only state in the country to improve reading scores, and was number one in the country for gains in fourth-grade reading and math, according to newly released test results.

On Wednesday the National Center for Education Statistics released 2019 data from the Nation’s Report Card, known officially as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). NAEP tests fourth- and eighth-grade students on what they know and what they can do in math and reading. Previous results are from 2017, when Mississippi students boosted their reading scores and math scores did not change.

While most states saw no improvement or a decline in scores in 2019, Mississippi was the only state to see improvement in three of the four tested subjects: fourth-grade reading and math, and eighth-grade math. The District of Columbia was the only jurisdiction to improve in three of the four subjects. Mississippi’s eighth-grade reading score did not change from 2017, but since the national average took a dip the state moved closer to that average.

The 2019 results mark the first time Mississippi has met or outperformed national averages. In 1992, the first year results are available for the state, Mississippi was almost 16 points behind the national average in fourth-grade reading and nearly 17  points behind in fourth-grade math. This year, Mississippi tied the national average in fourth-grade reading, and exceeded the average in fourth-grade math by one point. The state still falls behind the national average in eighth grade reading and math.

“Academic progress in Mississippi has been powerful and sustained, proving there is no limit to what our students can accomplish,” said state superintendent Carey Wright. “Mississippi’s teachers have done a phenomenal job equipping students with the knowledge and skills to succeed throughout their education.”

Proficiency on the NAEP tests signify that students have mastered challenging subject matter. This year 32 percent of students were proficient in fourth grade reading; 39 percent were proficient in math. In eighth grade, 25 percent of students were proficient in reading and 24 percent were proficient in math.

In a conference call with reporters, associate commissioner for assessment at the National Center for Education Statistics Peggy Carr noted Mississippi’s continued improvement.

“You’re to be commended, Mississippi,” Carr said. “Whatever you’re doing seems to be systemic and across the board.”

A deeper look into NAEP data shows that while an achievement gap still exists, each racial group improved upon their results from the previous year in every test except for eighth-grade reading. White students continue to outperform black and Hispanic students, although in some instances – fourth-grade math and reading, and eighth-grade reading – the gap got smaller. Mississippi’s black and Hispanic students outperformed their peers nationally in fourth-grade reading and math.

The Mississippi Department of Education attributed the some of the continued success in reading scores to the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, a law that went into effect in 2013 that requires third-graders to pass a reading test before they can be promoted to the fourth grade. This year marks the first where students had to hit a higher bar to move up a grade.

“Mississippi has entered a new era of public education,” said Jason Dean, chair of the Mississippi State Board of Education. “Our significant improvements in teaching and learning have made Mississippi a national leader for improving student success in education.”