MISSISSIPPI MUDDLE: Score gains larger than reported!


Let's take a look at the record:
In print editions, the New York Times wasn't especially delicate in its choice of words.

The Times was publishing an opinion column by Emily Hanford, senior education correspondent at American Public Media. And in her opinion column, Hanford was reporting some real information:

Over the course of the past six years (from 2013 through 2019), Mississippi's fourth graders have shown large score gains in reading! These gains have been recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Naep), the widely-praised "gold standard" of domestic educational testing.

"Mississippi is still the poorest state, but fourth graders there now read at the national average," Hanford wrote, referencing the state's average score on last year's Naep reading test.

"Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by 10 points since 2013," Hanford went on to say, failing to offer a way to know if a gain of ten points should be seen as a lot or a little.

In fact, the score gain in question is slightly over 10.8 points—and that rounds off to eleven! And yes, if we credit those Naep data, that should be seen as a substantial, impressive gain.

According to a common but very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the Naep scale is often equated to one academic year. If we credit those Naep data, fourth-graders in Mississippi were roughly one full year ahead of their counterparts from 2013 on last year's reading test!

If real, that's a major gain. In print editions, the New York Times was none too delicate in the way it chose to headline the piece which was reporting this score gain.
Online, Hanford's column appears today under a highly flattering headline: "There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It."

That headline flatters Mississippi, while possibly advancing a slightly peculiar thesis. In its print editions, though, the Times was a bit less delicate. In print editions on December 6, Hanford's column appeared beneath this somewhat indelicate head:
Perpetual Laggards Leap Ahead in Reading
Those perpetual laggards in Mississippi had staged a great leap forward! So it has sometimes tended to go when our self-assured Yankee tribe directs its perceptive gaze Southward.

In fairness, it isn't that the headline that day was "wrong." It was just perhaps a bit strong on the tribal aroma.

In fact, Mississippi, our poorest state, has long been one of the lowest-performing states on tests of reading and math. If the state's fourth-graders now match the national average in reading—if the state has made that much progress that fast—then that actually has been a great leap forward, one made by our laggard class!

Tomorrow, we'll start to look at Hanford's claims about the way this advance has been achieved. We find her thesis somewhat puzzling and somewhat depressing, though it may be perfectly accurate.

For today, we thought we'd fill in the background about Mississippi's ongoing gains on the Naep. In fact, the state's score gains are actually larger, and more widespread, than Hanford reports in her column.

How large have Mississippi's score gains been on the Naep? Today, we'll expand our field of view. We'll look at Mississippi's gains in both reading and math.

As we start, let's continue with fourth grade reading. How large have the score gains actually been?

As noted, Hanford reported a ten-point gain from 2013 to 2019, a gain which is really eleven. Most likely, she chose 2013 as her starting point because that was the state's worst performance on all recent Naep reading tests.

Having said that, whatever! How large have the gains really been?

As noted, the state's fourth-graders gained almost eleven points in reading over the six-year period to which Hanford referred. Nationwide, the fourth-grade reading score actually dropped by one point over that same period.

This allowed Mississippi to advance from twelve points below the national average to a state of virtual parity, all in just six years.

If real, that's a large advance! But Hanford is working with "aggregate" scores—with the average scores for all the fourth-graders of the state and the nation. If we "disaggregate" those scores—if we look at the gains recorded by the state's different demographic groups—the score gains, and the overall performance, are more impressive still.

Consider Mississippi's black fourth graders. Back in 2009, they scored slightly more than six points behind the nation's black kids, on average, on the Naep reading test.

By last year, that had changed. Last year, Mississippi's black fourth-graders outscored their black counterparts nationwide by something approaching six points:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Black kids, 2019 Naep

Mississippi: 208.61
United States: 202.96
Especially in such a low-income state, that's a striking advance and a striking performance. Mississippi's white fourth-graders matched their white peers across the nation last year, a surprising performance in a low-income state. But the state's black kids actually outperformed their peers nationwide, by a substantial margin.

Have we mentioned the fact that Mississippi is a low-income state? When we disaggregate by both income and race, the state's performance in fourth-grade reading again becomes more impressive.

How well did Mississippi's low-income fourth-graders perform on the Naep reading test? You're asking a very good question!

(Note! In federal education statistics, "low income" isn't a synonym for "poverty." Low-income kids are those who qualify for the federal lunch program. In theory, this means that their family incomes may be almost double the federal poverty rate. This is a very rough measure of income, but it's pretty much the only one we have.)

How well did low-income Mississippi kids perform on last year's Grade 4 reading test? Good lord! Low-income black kids outperformed their low-income peers nationwide by slightly more than nine points—by almost a full academic year:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Low-income black kids, 2019 Naep

Mississippi: 208.10
United States: 199.03
It wasn't just the black kids. Low-income white kids outscored their own low-income peers nationwide by slightly less than nine points. If we credit these Naep data, low-income kids in Mississippi are now strongly outscoring their low-income peers nationwide. And yes, this is a major change from the state's performance in the recent past.

Mississippi's fourth-graders did surprisingly well on last year's reading tests. After a bit of disaggregation, we'd say their performance was substantially stronger, and more surprising, than Hanford's column describes.

Having said that, let us also say this—Hanford only discussed the score gains on the Naep reading test. But when we look at the Naep math test, the impressive scores keep rolling along.

For today, how well did Mississippi's fourth-graders do on last year's Naep math test? In the aggregate, they outscored the nation by almost one point.

Given the poverty in the state, that's an impressive performance, and a break from the recent past. But when we disaggregate the state's fourth grade scores in math, the performance and score gains are just as strong as they were in reading, possibly somewhat better.

It isn't just that the state has "caught up" to the national average. In math as well as reading, different groups of Mississippi kids are whupping their peers nationwide:
Average scores, Grade 4 math
Black kids, 2019 Naep

Mississippi: 229.69
United States: 223.87
If we credit Mississippi's steady gains in math and reading on the Naep, something good seems to be happening in the state's public schools. You'd almost think a caring nation would want to know what's going on.

In fact, you'll never see such questions discussed in New York Times news reports. You'll never see such questions discussed on Tribal Cable, where the topic agenda goes like this:
Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump impeachment impeachment impeachment impeachment polls polls polls polls polls
In truth, no one cares about the kids of Mississippi, whether those kids are black or white, whether low-income or not. Hanford's column will come and go, having produced zero interest and even less debate and discussion.

Except here! Our discussion will shape up like this:

In her column, Hanford offered an explanation for the rise in Mississippi's reading scores. Her explanation may even be right—but if it is, she's describing a situation which is deeply depressing.

Are Mississippi's score gains real? If so, what has produced them?

Tomorrow, we'll start to look at Hanford's explanation—but you'll see this discussion nowhere else. In this, the age of Maddow and Trump, we can assure you of one thing:

No one in either tribe actually cares about any of this. Few facts could be more clear.

Tomorrow: The columnist's explanation

For all Naep data: For all Naep data, just start here.

From there, you're on your own.


  1. Somerby says "If we credit these gains..." about a million times. After that many repetitions, how many readers will have the impression that Mississippi cheated? Is that fair to the hard working teachers and kids who made gains in their scores? Does it leave the impression that those ratty schools are not only failing kids but also dishonest?

    1. It certainly does leave that impression. Recall the movie "Stand and Deliver". A group of minority kids made such remarkable gains in calculus that cheating was suspected. But, investigation showed that the gains were real.

      That was due to one particular teacher. Changing an entire state's education is much more difficult. I am waiting for Bob to explain how Mississippi made these amazing improvements. Until I hear a good explanation, I will be remain suspicious.

    2. David, the naep is the “gold standard” of testing. Somerby has used that phrase a million times. Part of what that means is that you (supposedly) can’t cheat on it. If you think Somerby is now going to show fraud in Mississippi on the NAEP, i’m afraid the naep can no longer be called the gold standard, and Bob will have to quit discussing it as having any real value.

    3. Hanford provided the explanation in her articles and other things she has been writing. Somerby is promising to discredit her explanation. No doubt he will tell us that she is a youngish elitist coming from an Ivy League school, but he won't have the chops to explain why her proposed explanation is impossible. He will tell us about cheating in GA, as if teachers everywhere just cheat and cheat, and it isn't possible that the MS schools finally got their act together.

      The teacher in Stand and Deliver, Jaime Escalante, won teaching awards, but there were lingering criticisms because not all of the kids in his classes were able to make such gains, he culled the ones who could and excluded the others. Further, his boot camp tactics are hard on the kids, especially those who cannot succeed, and don't work with all kids either. The movie suggested that his entire class studied calculus, but only a few did that. Of course there are Hispanic kids capable of high performance given the opportunity, but his methods don't bring all kids up to that level and may not be best for kids who are struggling with math. But this film appeals to those who think that a drill and discipline approach is needed with minority kids.

      You have heard the good explanation, if you followed the link and read Hanford's article. Somerby will be explaining that she is full of shit. You, apparently, don't need to hear his explanation about that, since you already are suspicious.

    4. @11:32 - Yes, Hanford provided a conceivable explanation for the huge jump in reading scores. I don't find it totally persuasive. Teachers have all had lots of training and loots of experience in how to teach reading. It would be remarkable if one new series of training made such a huge difference.

      Also, there's no explanation provided for the huge jump in math scores. A theory that might account for the rise in both math and reading would be some major focus on teaching students to prepare for the NAEP exams or even outright cheating.

    5. If you can cheat on the NAEP, then it can’t be the gold standard. Simple as that. That would call Somerby’s blog posts about it for the past twenty years into question.

    6. You have no evidence that MS teachers have had "lots of training and lots of experience". MS has been at the bottom in education spending for decades. Teacher training in both math and reading could account for increases in both sets of scores. It is a better explanation than massive cheating on both tests.

    7. David, my mother was from Mississippi, and I have family galore there and love the state.

      Recently, Bob mentioned the old “trust, but verify” axiom. Nothing wrong with that.

    8. Does it leave the impression that those ratty schools are ... dishonest?

      David in Cal, this commentariat's Village Idiot, thinks so. Are you ready to take a dive into this empty pool to join him?

    9. He joined me. I have no control over that.

  2. "Low-income kids are those who qualify for the federal lunch program. In theory, this means that their family incomes may be almost double the federal poverty rate."

    Because of Trump's cuts to food aide, half a million kids could lose their school lunch eligibility. This will affect the number and kinds of kids who are considered low income for purposes of NAEP comparisons. It will make it so that direct comparisons across years are apples vs oranges because the income levels of those receiving such aid will be different.

  3. "In her column, Hanford offered an explanation for the rise in Mississippi's reading scores. Her explanation may even be right—but if it is, she's describing a situation which is deeply depressing."

    What is deeply depressing about kids doing better on a reading test? What is deeply depressing about a state's schools making a concerted effort to improve instruction?

    Only Somerby could consider it deeply depressing that both kids and their teachers are doing a better job in MS! What is wrong with this man?

    1. You're another child left behind. Tragic.

      It's the explanation of the higher scores that TDH says he finds depressing, not that the fact that the kids scored higher. How about you wait to find out what TDH doesn't like about the explanation?

    2. Somerby thinks cognitive science is pompous. What can he possibly have to say about reading scores that will make any sense?

  4. "When we disaggregate by both income and race, the state's performance in fourth-grade reading again becomes more impressive."

    May I suggest, dear Bob, that "disaggregating" by income and/or "race" is stupid and irrelevant in this case?

    What you want is socioeconomic and cultural environment.

    1. If you don't collect data on these things, you cannot later disaggregate based on them.

  5. Psychology, neuroscience and education have historically been pursued in different departments on college campuses. This reflects the lack of cross-discipline sharing of knowledge. That has changed in the past 20 years. Now each of these fields is benefiting from interaction with the others.

    Teachers have been historically skeptical of fads in practice, requiring them to change their procedures only to be changed again when the next fad comes along. They are understandably resistant to new curriculum, materials and techniques, preferring to do what they believe works best in their own classrooms. This was valid when the practices were not based on empirical evidence, but that too has changed. Now the scientific findings of developmental psych and neuroscience are informing and changing best practices. This is a recent development and Somerby may be unaware of it.

    Somerby's tone is skeptical and I expect that he will remind us about cheating scandals in GA and Wash DC tomorrow. But he will be wrong to do that. It is entirely possible that the switch from pseudoscience to empirically based best practices can and did produce the improvement in MS. Somerby's recent nihilism sells children and their teachers short and makes me glad he is no longer anywhere near a classroom.

  6. “If real, that's a large advance! “

    Somerby has perpetually called the NAEP the “gold standard” of testing. Part of what that means, one has always assumed, is that you can’t cheat on it. Another assumption would be that you can’t really teach to the test.

    If he is now questioning the results in Mississippi, as he possibly seems to be by wondering aloud if the results there are “real”, it seems that that calls into question the notion that the NAEP really is the gold standard. If you can’t trust the results now in Mississippi, how can you trust them anywhere or at any time?

  7. "In truth, no one cares about the kids of Mississippi, whether those kids are black or white, whether low-income or not. Hanford's column will come and go, having produced zero interest and even less debate and discussion."

    Seems to me the schools and teachers of MS showed a lot of interest in their kids, enough to clean up their act and revise their teaching practices (according to Hanford).

    I find it offensive every time Somerby says something like this, because in my experience, parents care deeply about their kids. Most teachers care deeply about their students. Further, this kind of sentence contradicts Somerby's own mentions of black kids as "beautiful" and "deserving." That's why I cringe when he pretends to express caring for them and then writes ugly stuff like today's post.

    1. @12:11 - you are right, taking Bob's words literally. However, I don't think Bob meant teachers, schools and parents. I think when he said "no one", he meant politicians, media and liberals who profess their support for civil rights, but who, in his opinion, do not really care about the results

    2. Those people are parents too. Some are teachers. Somerby accusing some group of not caring doesn’t make it so. And in fact, according to him, the schools have improved, at least if you go by the gold standard NAEP results. Unless he never meant that literally, and used it merely for gaslighting purposes.

    3. DinC writes-
      "I think when he said "no one", he meant politicians, media and liberals who profess their support for civil rights, but who, in his opinion, do not really care about the results".

      Convince me that conservatives give a shit about civil rights or education results for poor children.

    4. @2:38 Convince me that liberals give a shit about civil rights or education results for poor children. They did care back in the days of the Voting Rights Act. But, in recent years, liberals have supported programs that make black people more dependent on the government, with no reference to whether the programs actually do good or do harm. Liberals are negative towards alternative schools, which give black children an opportunity to leave failing schools. Liberals are in favor of illegal immigrants, who take entry level jobs away from black youths and who drive down salaries for lower class and lower middle class jobs.

    5. If Liberals cared about black children, they'd give them a free gun and free training on how to use it when they turn 17 years-old, so they can protect themselves from the police.

    6. 8:06,
      Sounds like you want Liberals to be the NRA, with their "fight the tyranny of the government", and "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun" slogans.

  8. "...in recent years, liberals have supported programs that make black people more dependent on the government, with no reference to whether the programs actually do good or do harm. "

    Don't kid yourself. If Liberal programs negatively affected black people, you'd be the world's biggest fan of Liberals.

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