MISSISSIPPI MUDDLE: Naep scores rise in Mississippi!


Information allowed to escape:
On Friday morning, December 6, an opinion column in the New York Times included some actual information!

It was information of a type which is rarely allowed to appear in major American newspapers. According to Emily Hanford's opinion column, the public school kids of Mississippi have recorded substantial score gains in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Naep)!

The federally-run Naep is the widely-praised "gold standard" of domestic educational testing. As we've noted in the past, everyone knows to praise the Naep, and to disappear its results.

The Naep has been in existence since the street-fighting year of 1969. At present, it's administered across the nation in odd-numbered years.

That's where Hanford's forbidden information comes in. She opened her column by noting that Mississippi is generally regarded as an educational backwater. Then, she offered some surprising facts:
HANFORD (12/6/19): New results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to measure fourth- and eighth-grade achievement in reading and math, show that Mississippi made more progress [from 2017 to 2019] than any other state.

The state’s performance in reading was especially notable.
Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test. Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.


For years, everyone assumed Mississippi was at the bottom in reading because it was the poorest state in the nation. Mississippi is still the poorest state, but fourth graders there now read at the national average. While every other state’s fourth graders made no significant progress in reading on this year’s test, or lost ground, Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by 10 points since 2013...
The information provided by Hanford was indeed surprising. Just for the record, her factual claims were almost wholly accurate, if in our view a bit limited.

On last year's Naep reading test, Mississippi's fourth graders did indeed perform at the national average. And the state's fourth-grade reading score has indeed gone up by something resembling ten points—very roughly, by one academic year—since 2013.

In fact, Hanford slightly understated the actual size of the gain over those six years. When we look a little bit closer, the score gain rounds off to eleven points—from an average score of 208.52 in 2013 to 219.34 last year.

(For all Naep data, just start here. From there, you're on your own.)

On its face, Hanford was reporting some very good news. It's the kind of news which is almost never reported in newspapers like the Times.

Over the course of the past fifty years, American public school students have recorded large scores gains in both reading and math on the Naep. These score gains have been recorded at both the fourth and eighth grade levels.

That said:

As we've noted down through the years, American newspapers seem to agree that such score gains must never be reported. Readers of the New York Times are simply never told about those very large score gains. Similarly, the Times joined the Washington Post, just last week, in disappearing all sorts of good news from the newly-released 2018 Pisa scores.

(For links to our reports on that topic, you can just click here.)

These elites today! American elites of all types have long built their education reporting around a fictitious story line. That story line goes like this:
Absolutely nothing has worked in our pitiful public schools!
The deceptions involved in this reporting has been widespread and vast. Hanford broke every rule in the book when, in her opinion column, she included some actual information about some actual test score gains—large score gains recorded by fourth graders in our poorest state.

Who the heck is Emily Hanford, and on what basis is she allowed to report such information? According to the Times' identity line, Hanford "is the senior education correspondent for APM Reports."

The APM in question is American Public Media. According to the leading authority on the organization, APM "is the second largest producer and distributor of public radio programs in the United States after NPR."

APM is a major org. As we examine Hanford's overall column, that fact may imaginably serve to bring the note of sadness in.

Again, Hanford reported accurate facts about Mississippi test scores. She even reported large score gains, and that's a type of reporting which is almost never allowed.

That said, we couldn't help noting a certain lack of technical expertise in Hanford's reporting. In fact, the score gains in Mississippi are larger, and are more widespread, than Hanford's column reported.

If you "disaggregate" Mississippi's test scores—break them apart by ethnicity, race and income level—then the state's score gains in fourth grade reading are even larger, and more impressive, than Hanford reported.

Also this:

Over the course of the past ten years, Mississipi's fourth grade score gains are even larger in math! That's an especially striking point when you consider the pair of headlines which sit atop Hanford's column:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
The state’s reliance on cognitive science explains why.
According to Hanford, the gain in fourth grade reading scores can be attributed to the fact that Mississippi knows "the right way to teach reading," thanks to its "reliance of cognitive science."

Those claims may be accurate in some way and to some extent. But the state shows larger gains in math, a fact which goes unreported and unexplained in Hanford's unusual column.

Tomorrow, we'll show you how large Mississippi's fourth grade score gains actually are, in both reading and math. Then, as the week proceeds, we'll consider Hanford's explanation for the rise in the state's reading score.

If those Naep scores can be trusted, they suggest that something very good has been taking place in Mississippi's schools. You'd almost think a decent nation would want to know what that is.

Trust us—you'll never see any such question pursued in the New York Times' news reporting. And in this one instance, when Hanford was allowed to report some actual facts in her surprising opinion column, she offered an explanation of Mississippi's score gains in reading which seems, at least on its face, almost impossibly childish.

According to Hanford, the state has produced these large score gains in reading because it's been teaching phonics! Can that possibly be the explanation for those (apparently large) academic gains? We'll examine the topic all week—after which, you'll never hear a single word about it ever again.

At the top of the current societal pile, no one cares about public schools or about the low-income kids within them. No fact could be more blindingly obvious. No assertion could be more safe.

Tomorrow: An overview of the gains

Hanford's earlier column: When Hanford refers to "cognitive science," is she simply referring to the need to teach phonics?

Her new column is somewhat unclear on that point. It seems to us that this column from October 2018—"Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wring Way?"—makes her meaning fairly clear.


  1. "As we've noted down through the years, American newspapers seem to agree that such score gains must never be reported."

    Meh. You've noted wrong, dear Bob. If any score gains were detected in any zombie-controlled state, that would've been trumpeted from every pulpit.

    But this is Mississippi, dear Bob. Nothing good is supposed to happen there. Only totally evil things, like not enough abortions.

    1. "...like not enough abortions."

      Ha ha ha. I get it. because women, like other minorities, shouldn't be first-class citizens with all the inherent Rights that come with it, under Trumpian/ Right-wing rules.

      It's (not) funny, because it's true.

  2. Emily Hanford has a podcast and is all over public radio. She has credentials that are better than Somerby's when it comes to educaton and education reporting.

    Somerby pretends that he knows what cognitive science means, better than Hanford. He asks whether it reduces to simply phonics. There are several processes involved in reading and phonics is only one part of it.

    Somerby manufactures quibbles in order to reduce the stature of someone whose hem he cannot touch. It makes him sound small and pathetic. This woman is the real deal and he is not.

    I posted a link and talked about Hanford's recent interview on NPR in comments several weeks ago. An op-ed has to appear in the NY Times before she is on Somerby's radar, great expert on education that he is. But she is today popularizing a trend toward the use of empirically based methods drawn from cognitive science. This is a trend that has been important in education for years now.

    Somerby is a fraud. His dainty reticence to embrace Hanford's efforts indicate that he doesn't have a clue about any of this. HE thinks SHE doesn't get statistics. In what world?

  3. Go find a copy of "Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It" by Rudolf Flesch. It's still in print, even though it was written in the 1950's. It lays out the same sound arguments for using phonics to teach reading using phonics. It is tragic that, 65 years later, educators have not fully learned the lesson.

    This issue illustrates why private industry outperforms government. When McDonalds discovers a more effective way to sell burgers, their competitors copy them. Otherwise, they go out of business. However, school administrators and education "experts" do not all get fired when their theories prove to be less effective.

    1. Hanford's point is not that schools should switch to phonics. It is that different kids need different things and that phonics needs to be taught together with comprehension skills. It cannot be one of the other but needs to be both. Lower income kids are missing the comprehension part because of their limited life experiences. Middle class and upper class kids may miss the decoding (phonics) because their parents or schools do not emphasize decoding (the mistaken approach). BOTH are needed to read well.

      The right grabbed onto the phonics movement whole hog, but if you only teach phonics and not also meanings of words, you leave the poor kids behind. Hanford worries about the poor kids. People like DinC's heroes here do not care about the kids left behind.

      Beyond that Flesch had no idea about current science emerging from the field of cognitive science about how kids learn to read and how adults accomplish that task. As a result, emphasis on just that old phonics approach will not help kids with learning deficits and it does not present an accurate picture of how kids learn to read.

      It is tragic that teachers are not well enough trained to implement sound approaches to teaching reading. That means not relying on old phonics books but coming up to the state of the art. MS doesn't spend enough money on its schools and that is why its teachers aren't current. Hanford doesn't point out that it takes money to bring an entire cadre of teachers, statewide, up to speed like this. They invested in their teachers and it paid off.

      David thinks teachers should read 65 year old books. That is the problem with both home schooling and charter schools. They can be based on ideology and not based on what works best for kids.

  4. "It seems to us that this column from October 2018—"Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wring Way?"—makes her meaning fairly clear."

    What exactly is the Wring Way? Somerby's meaning is unclear.

    1. As I understand that 2018 column, using phonics is the right way to teach reading. Not using phonics is the wrong way.

    2. Using phonics together with reading comprehension approaches is the right way, not phonics alone.

      It has been destructive that phonics has placed itself in juxtaposition so that there has been a dichotomy between the two approaches, when both are needed together.

  5. “APM is a major org. “

    So why has Somerby never mentioned Hanford before, who is their senior education correspondent? He links to a second op-ed of hers that appeared over a year ago. This is the first ever mention in TDH of her or this previous column.

    Her 2018 column was about how schools are teaching reading the wrong way. It isn’t difficult to imagine Somerby’s reaction to that column, if he had bothered to notice it. He would have chastised her for ignoring the really great score gains our schools have achieved, and then faulted the Times for always printing negative stories about education.

    Hanford’s column shows things working in Mississippi. It isn’t clear that the same can be said elsewhere, especially given that quite a few states saw their average scores drop in 2019.

    At any rate, can Somerby actually find school reforms that he supports, such as those adopted in Mississippi, given the general anti-reform stance he has frequently taken? Would he be willing to drop his “nobody ever discusses this” posturing for five seconds to admit that people are actually discussing this?

  6. Somerby omits the most important information: where did Hanford go to school, when did she graduate, and what political tribe does she belong to?

    That should tell us what to think about her theories. If she is a liberal, it stands to reason she is just virtue-signaling her concern about education.

    At least, that is the general impression one gets reading Somerby for years.

  7. The top scorers in international tests in reading are often Chinese places, while Spanish-speaking countries are not so hot, even worse than the US. This is in the reverse order of how phonetic the languages are. The Chinese scores may be due in part to careful selection of students, but the results are not consistent with the idea that "phonics" or phonetic reading, is critically important.

    1. Not a logical assumption. Methods that work for reading Chinese are obviously going to be different than those that work teaching English reading, because they are completely different systems. The writing of English words is based on symbols that more or less represent sounds, hence phonics. Hanford is talking about more than phonics, of course, but that is part of it.

      You might as well compare the English alphabet with musical notation as with the Chinese system.

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