THE UNDISCUSSED: Miracle spotted in Mississippi!

TUESDAY, MAY 23, 2023

A claim that scores have soared: "I want to talk really quickly," Morning Joe's chief host said.

He wanted to "talk really quickly" about a topic which is rarely discussed by our blue tribe's tribunes and journalists. He wanted to discuss a miracle which had occurred in Mississippi—a miracle which had occurred in that state's public schools.

The discussion began at 6:46 A.M.; it was over by 6:47. As we showed you yesterday, this is the way it began:

SCARBOROUGH (5/18/23): I want to talk really quickly, before we go to break, about reading in Mississippi and Alabama. 

I mean, you know, Mississippi—two states I love, two states I've lived in. Two states when I hear we're 49th in this, 50th in that, I roll my eyes.

Did you read about the "Mississippi miracle" yesterday? That Mississippi's reading scores have shot way up?



SCARBOROUGH: The Alabama miracle? It's so heartening, and maybe offers a road map for other areas in states that may be doing better but where there are pockets of illiteracy, to do better.

Reading scores in public schools almost never get discussed at all. On this rare occasion, Morning Joe devoted something like ninety seconds to the claim that a miracle had occurred in the Mississippi schools.

As we noted yesterday, the miracle had been reported in a lengthy AP report. The headline had said this:

‘Mississippi miracle’: Kids’ reading scores have soared in Deep South states

For the record, the AP report, by Sharon Lurye, had described no Alabama miracle, heartening or otherwise. Scarborough was already embellishing a report he had most likely skimmed, if that.

That said, the headline on the AP report really did seem to be claiming a "miracle" in Mississippi. It also said that public school reading scores have "soared" in (plural) Deep South states.

Claims of "miracles" in public schools have a long, unimpressive track record. That said, this AP report was so impressive that it generated ninety seconds of discussion on a major cable news program.

Even if for those few moments, the Morning Joe gang had set aside their more typical speculations about arcane legal issues involving Donald J. Trump. For today, let's start to review what was actually said in the lengthy AP report.

Has a "miracle" really occurred in Mississippi's schools? Inevitably, a bit of hyperbole was likely involved in that (heartening) claim. Headline included, the report began as shown:

‘Mississippi miracle’: Kids’ reading scores have soared in Deep South states

It's a cliché that Kymyona Burk heard a little too often: “Thank God for Mississippi.”

As the state’s literacy director, she knew politicians in other states would say it when their reading test scores were down—because at least they weren’t ranked as low as Mississippi. Or Louisiana. Or Alabama.

Lately, the way people talk about those states has started to change. Instead of looking down on the Gulf South, they’re seeing it as a model.

Mississippi went from being ranked the second-worst state in 2013 for reading to 21st in 2022. Louisiana and Alabama, meanwhile, were among only three states to see modest gains in fourth-grade reading during the pandemic, which saw massive learning setbacks in most other states.

According to the AP report, people weren't laughing at three Deep South states any more.

With respect to Mississippi, it had been "the second-worst state for reading" as recently as 2013. In 2022, it had registered as 21st best—as the 21st best out of 50 states in all.

Depending on what we're talking about, that would be a substantial improvement. It might not qualify as a miracle in everyone's book. 

Meanwhile, two Gulf Coast neighbors—Alabama and Louisiana—had shown "modest gains" in fourth-grade reading during the pandemic, during a time when many other states had seen substantial setbacks.

On that basis, Lurye reported this:

LURYE (continuing directly): The turnaround in these three states has grabbed the attention of educators nationally, showing rapid progress is possible anywhere, even in areas that have struggled for decades with poverty and dismal literacy rates. The states have passed laws adopting similar reforms that emphasize phonics and early screenings for struggling kids. 

It's true that educators have been paying attention to scores gains in these three Deep South states. That said, it isn't clear that a miracle has occurred in Mississippi, or that reading scores have "soared" elsewhere in the region.

For now, a bit of precision:

Lurye was referring to average statewide scores in Grade 4 reading from last year's administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Naep). The Naep is a federal program which has long been regarded as the gold standard of this nation's educational testing.

Last year, the Naep was administered for the first time since 2019—for the first time since the Covid pandemic struck, disrupting much public schooling. 

In the face of attendant disruptions in public schooling, Naep scores in reading and math had dropped on a nationwide basis over that three-year period. In Grade 4 reading, average scores had slightly improved in Alabama and Louisiana.

(The Naep tests students in reading and math at three grade levels—4, 8 and 12.)

In Mississippi, the average Grade 4 reading score did, in fact, slightly drop from 2019 to 2022. But the national average dropped even more, creating a situation where Mississippi's fourth-grade kids were actually outscoring their nationwide counterparts, if only by a slight amount.

Assuming everything is as it seems, this would be an impressive accomplishment for Mississippi's public schools. But had a miracle really occurred there, and had scores really "soared" in the other two states?

A hint of hyperbole may be involved in such claims. Here are the average scores in question:

Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Naep, 2022:
U.S. public schools:  216.11
Alabama:  213.30
Louisiana:  212.34
Mississippi:  217.16

According to a very rough but widely employed rule of thumb, ten points on the Naep scale is roughly equivalent to one academic year. 

Judged by that very rough rule of thumb, Mississippi had inched past the national average in Grade 4 reading. Alabama and Louisiana lagged a third to a half of a year behind the national average—and now, let's consider this:

Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Naep, 2022:
U.S. public schools: 216.11
Alabama: 213.30
Louisiana: 212.34
Mississippi: 217.16 
Florida: 224.74
Massachusetts: 226.80

At the risk of breaking hearts, we show you where the controversial state known as Florida stood on the Grade 4 reading test. Also Massachusetts, a traditionally high-performing state.

A whole lot remains to be said once we've looked at that first set of average scores. In a bit of a spoiler alert, Mississippi's performance looks even better when we look at the average scores for the state's low-income kids, and also for its black kids.

Having said that, we'll add this:

There exists a long, unhelpful history involving embellished claims of educational miracles and soaring test scores. 

Assuming everything is as it seems, Mississippi's score gains are indeed impressive. But it might be too soon to declare the latest miracle, or to say that the scores from the other two Gulf Coast states have "soared."

Also, we've included an awkward phrase on two occasions. Can we assume that everything is as it seems? We'll offer more on that awkward question as the week proceeds.

As you can see if you click this link, Scarborough gave this heartening topic ninety seconds, then returned to some enjoyable clowning. It's much as we have always told you:

No one cares about those Gulf Coast kids, and no one ever will.

Tomorrow: "Disaggregating" those scores


  1. Somerby himself gets this wrong in several ways:

    1. Morning Joe didn't report on the NAEP scores because there was a miracle that warranted it. He did it because, as he himself stated (directly after the part Somerby quoted), he had learned to read in Mississippi and was happy to see improvement in a state that went from 49th in the nation to 21st. Improvement -- not a miracle (the AP and Somerby's word).

    2. The improvements occurred in plural Southern states. Somerby implies that Joe threw in Alabama without justification, but Louisiana and Alabama were the two states mentioned in the AP article as having improved scores, with gains compared to many other states in the nation. Joe didn't make up Alabama's gains, nor did he gratuitously pluralize the states showing improvement.

    3. Somerby says the AP report mentioned no Alabama miracle, heartening or otherwise. The report did definitely mention Alabama's improvement, miracle or not, and Joe rightfully called it heartening. He said he liked it when Southern states were no longer last in the nation on something. He also mentioned that he lived in Alabama too.

    4. Somerby thinks Joe mentioned the NAEP scores because of an over-hyped miracle, but Joe explicitly says he mentioned the progress because of his personal interest in the state where he himself learned to read. Why should he have spent more than a minute or so on a personal comment about progress in the South?

    Somerby is misrepresenting both the article and the show when he pretends that Scarborough misread the article (Somerby seems to have only skimmed himself) and had a different purpose in mentioning the results -- to discuss reading progress in the latest NAEP.

    Then Somerby goes on to tell lies about whether liberals care about low-income kids (when neither Joe nor the AP article was about low-income kids) and to claim that no one cares about education. Somerby himself only cares when it gives him a chance to bash some journalist -- Joe and Mika are familiar targets around here. Those NAEP scores came out on October 24, 2022. Why did it take him so long to mention them? He was obviously waiting for someone to bash over their reporting. Joe Scarborough is not only not an education expert, but not a reporter either. He is a pundit and morning show host. His 90-seconds were neither mistaken nor a misreading of the AP article. Somerby's own motives, however, give today's essay a slant that betrays his bitterness through distorted and unwarranted complaints against anyone in arms length.

    A person who cared about kids, low-income kids, or reading instruction would take it more seriously than today's effort.

  2. "In Mississippi, the average Grade 4 reading score did, in fact, slightly drop from 2019 to 2022. But the national average dropped even more, creating a situation where Mississippi's fourth-grade kids were actually outscoring their nationwide counterparts, if only by a slight amount."

    As both Joe Scarborough and the AP article made clear, the miracle in Mississippi was being claimed on the basis of 10 years improvement, comparing the current scores against those from 2013.

    Why wouldn't the scores in Mississippi drop following covid, when those of most other states did too? Somerby pretends that the miracle was comparing 2018 to the 2022 scores, NOT the 10 year comparison, which shows substantial improvement despite covid. The AP article did not make a specious comparison against the national average (which did go down due to covid), but against Mississippi's own previous scores ten years ago.

    This is an example of Somerby's dishonesty. You ALWAYS have to check his work these days.

    1. "Somerby pretends that the miracle was comparing 2018 to the 2022 scores, NOT the 10 year comparison, which shows substantial improvement despite covid."

      Somerby directly addresses the 10-year improvement and acknowledges that Mississippi's ranking has improved since 2013.💩

    2. To be fair, and I don’t know why this particular phrase comes to mind, Somerby does kind of poo poo the idea that the improvement is a miracle.

    3. No one is disputing that.

    4. It's not an example of the blogger being dishonest, it's yet another example of the illiteracy and monomania of his trollership.

  3. "There exists a long, unhelpful history involving embellished claims of educational miracles and soaring test scores. "

    Somerby briefly made a name for himself writing editorials about cheating on standardized tests in his local area. When district funds are contingent on such test scores, there is an incentive for poorly funded schools to cheat. Similarly, when teacher pay is based on student test scores there is also an incentive to cheat. Students themselves cheat when (1) they believe they cannot succeed without cheating, (2) they believe the expectations are unreasonable or unfair, (3) there is a lot at stake for them based on test results, such as being held back or other punishments by parents or schools.

    Somerby used to attack Michelle Rhee because he felt her school improvement results were over-hyped or inflated in order to promote her miraculous cures for school problems. He also seems to have a deeply held suspicion of con artists in academics, considering professors and experts of all types to be charlatans. For some reason, he doesn't apply this suspicion to Trump, the greatest con artist of our generation.

    Does this justify calling every academic improvement that comes along a possible fraud? Should hard-working teachers and educational experts all be considered suspicious self-promoters? Is there never cause for hope when it comes to best practices and recommended teaching strategies? These nitpicks over the word "miracle" seem to prevent Somerby from seeing valid improvement in the South, validated by NAEP scores. Is it helpful to deride the hard work of educators in MI and AL and then claim that no one cares about education?

    And why on earth should Joe Scarborough be expected to wade into the weeds about the mechanics of NAEP testing or else he doesn't give a damn about kids? I suspect that Somerby is projecting his own guilt over having abandoned teaching for comedy onto liberals. But we DO care and some of us even cared enough to read the AP article, which seems to be more than Somerby did.

  4. The second amendment is evil.

  5. "Scarborough gave this heartening topic ninety seconds, then returned to some enjoyable clowning..."

    Is that including the time Elise spent talking about it?

    The clowning consisted of teasing Mika when she attempted to change the subject, saying that she didn't care about Southern kids reading because she was a Yankee. Sounded a lot like Somerby, who is today saying that none of us care about those Gulf kids. Apparently Somerby is clowning too.

    Is two minutes too little, is five minutes too much? Did they need charts and graphs? Unlike Somerby, they talked about how the improvement was accomplished, about early intervention with struggling readers, giving them specialized help.

  6. Bob is convincingly debunked on the subject at hand here. We should throw in the “usual clowning” is how Bob characterizes and discussion on the American Conservative Party going insane and backing a mental case who tried to make himself dictator for life and will try again. Bob is a fool who just doesn’t want to hear about this at all.

  7. It seems to me that the folks who are talking about Gulf Coast reading scores are showing that they care, especially the teachers and reading specialists in those Southern states. That isn't Somerby, who said nothing about the current NAEP scores when they were released last October. It IS Mika and Joe and Elise and the AP article that appeared in the NY Times (among other places).

  8. I am a big fan of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist psychologist who said that reinforcement causes a behavior to increase whereas punishment causes it to decrease.

    Yesterday Morning Joe briefly discussed NAEP scores for Southern states, showing interest in reading improvement. That is a desirable behavior that we should want to see increased. The way to reward it would be to praise the segment and encourage repeat behavior reporting on education issues. Instead, Somerby punishes the show, deriding the length and quality of their reporting. Calling them uncaring because the segment wasn't longer. That response will tend to discourage a repeat and make reports on education less frequent on such shows.

    Joe and Mika deserved the carrot, not the stick. But Somerby only has one response -- the stick, the stick. Behaviorist principles are widely used in education to encourage children to persist and pursue educational tasks. Instead of punishment, teachers use reinforcement of the behavior they want to see repeated. They ignore the bad behavior, as much as possible, because punishment is no longer permitted in many classrooms. They structure rewards to encourage and support learning, including such things as teacher approval, praise, positive attention, as well as stickers and happy faces and grades and teacher notes "well done!" "good effort". Somerby would know those techniques if he had studied education instead of philosophy, and had some actual training beyond Teach for America's denigration of standard methods. His lack of training shows here every day, where he punishes liberals while claiming to want to want to defeat Trump, instead promoting right wing memes and talking points.

    His attacks on public education are difficult to explain without attributing them to either right wing motives or malice, but perhaps he is himself just a deeply ignorant man.

    1. Well, he had a stick for MSNBC. For Fox, it’s lashes with a wet noodle.

  9. "had scores really "soared" in the other two states?"

    How can we know the answer to that when Somerby presents only the 2022 scores for AL and LA and not any previous scores from any year?

    The word "soar" means "increase rapidly above the usual level." This implies a comparison. We cannot know whether those scores increased rapidly above the usual level without knowing what the usual level was (previously) and what the period of time was during which the increase occurred.

    Somerby provides no comparative scores for LA and AL. We are apparently supposed to just take his word for it that scores did not soar. The amount of soaring might be a judgment call, a bit subjective, but Somerby doesn't even give us the chance to see for ourselves how much increase has happened.

    Somerby knows better. That's why I think he is propagandizing here, not trying to convince anyone of anything. Republicans may swallow what they read because of who said it, but most liberals want to decide for themselves. Somerby disrespects his audience when he leaves out the info we need to decide for ourselves about how high scores need to be before we call them "soaring."

  10. Today Somerby meekly says “yeah, well…whatever”.

    Ok, Somerby.

  11. 4th grade reading scores are likely limited in being informative and useful, as students are still developing at different rates.

    California NAEP scores are not impressive overall, but when you disaggregate the students not eligible for free/reduced lunch, CA is 5th in the nation.

    CA is also the 5th largest economy in the world, it’s a state that works - literally and figuratively.

    CA overall success as a state may indicate that test scores have limited usefulness.

  12. Off-topic, but one of the great things about the whole trans thing happening now, is Republican politicians, perhaps for the first time ever, give a shit about kids. I did not see that happening in my lifetime.

    1. Buck the topic.

    2. The GOP in '23: Focused like a laser on your children's genitals.

    3. The reason Republicans are triggered by issues about gender, kids, and grooming is that they are defined by being a cohort of people who have suffered childhood abuse and are still deeply wounded by their experiences.

      Sarcasm aside, Republicans do not care about kids, their transphobia is a means to feel dominance.

      Persuasion won’t work on these sad lost souls.

  13. Republicans should support statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

  14. Defund the Supreme Court.

    1. Defund Harlan Crow, he owns the Supreme Court.

  15. Harry Litman is God.

  16. We live in a barred spiral galaxy.

  17. Justice for Karen!