Last week, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, released its 2015 scores. Mississippi was the only state (joined only by DC) whose fourth graders made statistically significant gains in both math and reading from 2013 to 2015. We were also one of half of the states that did not experience a score decline in either math or reading in grade 8. This is a sign of great progress for Mississippi, especially in a year when the picture was not so rosy nationwide, but after we celebrate, it is important that we take a look at the bigger picture to have a better understanding of what still needs to be done.

What is NAEP?

NAEP is a series of national tests designed to measure the achievement of the nation’s school children. A reading and a math test is administered nationwide every two years in grades 4, 8, and 12[1] to a statistically representative sample in every state as well as the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense. NAEP also has special subject area tests, such as in science or civics, that are administered on a different schedule. The NAEP data that was released last week is from the bi-annual reading and math tests; data from this test stretches back over two decades. Currently, the NAEP assessments are taken by pencil and paper, but in 2017, they will be administered using technology. Because a representative sample instead of every child takes NAEP, the assessments do not score individual students or districts but give an overall picture of gains and losses in subject areas across the states.

Why is NAEP important?

NAEP is important because it gives advocates, administrators, and policymakers data that can help make school systems better. The scores are disaggregated by subject area, race, income, gender, and other characteristics so we can get a snapshot of which students need more support in reading and math. NAEP is also the only long-term, nationally comparable achievement data we have in K-12 education, meaning that it is useful in comparing the performance of Mississippi students to other states and the nation as a whole.

What can Mississippians learn from NAEP about our educational progress?

Historically, Mississippi has ranked at or near the bottom on NAEP compared to other states. Since state NAEP testing began in the 1990s, Mississippi has made statistically significant progress in both math and reading, gaining 32 points in fourth grade math and 15 in reading and 25 points in eighth grade math (there has been no improvement in eighth grade reading). However, as Mississippi has gained, our fellow states have, too. Mississippi has not made progress each testing year, and in years in which Mississippi did move forward, we did not make enough progress to move far from the bottom.

Much like the state has made gains over time, so have Mississippi’s two largest subgroups: black students and poor students. However, again, these groups did not make enough progress to narrow achievement gaps. Both the racial and socio-economic achievement gaps are unchanged since 2000 in fourth and eighth grade math and reading (the gap briefly narrowed in fourth grade math for black students in 2007 but this trend did not continue). In 2015, both black kids and poor kids in Mississippi score between 20 and 30 points lower than their white or non-poor counterparts in both math and reading at fourth and eighth grades. Children in Mississippi are no closer to having equal outcomes by race or class than they were almost two decades ago.

Now what?

Making gains on NAEP is something Mississippi should be very proud of, but we should be careful not to throw the party too soon: Mississippi has to make statistically significant and large gains every testing cycle in order to catch up to the rest of the country. The gains we have made over the last two decades have yet to substantially change our overall national standing or the relative standing of our subgroups. It is too early to tell whether our most recent success on NAEP is the beginning of a long-term trend or merely a blip on the radar.

Mississippi First champions transformative policy solutions ensuring educational excellence for every Mississippi child. We believe that we need to continue moving forward with a reform agenda that takes a multi-faceted approach to improving student achievement. This agenda calls for

  1. The Implementation of High Standards: The Mississippi College and Career Ready Standards (MCCRS) have enormous potential to help all students reach the highest academic levels by giving them the knowledge and skills required for the future, but we must remember significant work remains to realize that potential. At Mississippi First, we strongly believe that successful implementation of the standards will increase student success after graduation and will prepare our students for the next step every year they are in school. Since these standards are closely aligned to NAEP, we believe their faithful implementation can lead to higher achievement on NAEP as well.
  2. The Expansion of Quality PreK: Another action we can take is to invest in high-quality public preK. Research supports the positive role preK can play in closing the achievement gap while raising achievement for all learners. If students enter Kindergarten ready for school, we believe we will continue to see gains in our grade 4 NAEP scores, especially if we capitalize on school readiness by improving instruction in grades K-3.
  3. The Development of a Workable School Turnaround Policy: There is no question that Mississippi needs a plan for how to re-invent low-performing schools. The problem is that there are a lot of questions about the best way to do that, especially in a rural state like Mississippi. Mississippi needs a workable strategy for intervening in chronically failing districts and setting them on a sustainable path of improvement. The conservatorship process has plenty of critics, but far fewer people have stepped forward with constructive ideas for what the alternative should be. The Mississippi Department of Education convened an Achievement School District (ASD) Task Force this fall to debate the issue. Whether or not the task force reaches its goal of having recommendations by December 2015, Mississippi’s policymakers will need to grapple seriously with the issue. Mississippi First, whose Executive Director sits on the ASD Task Force, believes a winning strategy must combine serious governance reforms with long-term talent pipelines for both teachers and school leaders.
  4. The Expansion of High-Quality Public School Options: Mississippi First believes that part of the solution for some chronically failing districts is the expansion of high-quality public school options like charter schools. Charter schools may also be an opportunity for higher performing districts to create new school models reaching underserved populations. Though not perfect, Mississippi has a high-quality charter school law as well as a responsible Charter School Authorizer Board. Mississippi should continue to make improvements to its charter school law and policies and support the expansion of charter schools in appropriate circumstances.

We believe that it is very much in our power as Mississippians to make these changes for the benefit of our children. Join us; together, we can impact education in Mississippi.

[1] Grade 12 assessments have not always been administered every two years since the state NAEP assessment started in 1990. Grade 12 assessments have only been administered in the following years: 2009, 2013, and 2015.

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