Dating back to his time as lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves has been touting the education gains in Mississippi and trying to take some credit for them.
He was at it again this past week, using his State of the State address to peddle the line that the turnaround in the state’s public schools has been nothing short of phenomenal.
If only that were true.
To make his case, Reeves — much like the Mississippi Department of Education itself — is chronically selective in his statistics, telling only part of the story and leaving out facts that would show that many of these gains are either illusory or only seem to be impressive because the state started so far behind most of the rest of the nation.
When I saw that the governor again bragged about Mississippi’s graduation rate, I wanted to scream.
He’s been peddling that story for at least five years, rarely if ever mentioning that Mississippi’s improved graduation rates have coincided with a lowering of standards.
During an earlier education reform movement, Mississippi required high school seniors to prove that they actually learned something during their 13 years of formal education by passing four standardized tests. When not enough students could do so, the state Board of Education added other routes to a diploma that de-emphasized the state tests.
During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state tests were completely factored out of the equation. In 2020, the tests weren’t given. Last year, they were given but didn’t count.
So, when Reeves and his partner in half-truths, Superintendent of Education Carey Wright, try to use graduation and dropout rates in Mississippi as a gauge of academic success, they are being misleading, and intentionally so.
Last spring, Mississippi claimed an all-time high graduation rate of 87.7% and an all-time low dropout rate of 8.8%. At the same time, a fact Reeves failed to mention, students from elementary through high school saw a precipitous drop in their state test scores on English language arts and math.
How is it then that even while statistical and anecdotal evidence show students have regressed academically as a result of the pandemic’s disruptions, a higher percentage was able to graduate?
The explanation is obvious. Students got a COVID-related pass. They did less work, teachers who had to resort to distance learning had a hard time keeping up with who was participating, and the message from administrators was to pass the students on regardless of how much effort they put into their studies.
High school diplomas, already watered down, became even more like participation trophies.
Maybe that was unavoidable, but at least Reeves could be honest about it.
That’s not the only area where the self-proclaimed “numbers guy” didn’t provide all the numbers.
Take another “all-time high” that Reeves highlighted in his speech: Mississippi’s passing rate on Advanced Placement exams, the tests the highest-performing high schoolers take in an effort to earn early college credit. Even though the 37.4% passage rate in 2021 is the best Mississippi’s students have ever done on the AP tests, it’s still a mediocre number. The national passing rate in 2021 was 56.4%, almost 20 points higher.
Even the state’s impressive improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress may not be quite all that it seems.
From 2013 to 2019, the latest year for which results are available, Mississippi students rose faster in fourth grade reading than anyone on the national test. They improved their ranking from 49th to 29th. The gains in math were even more impressive, jumping from 50th to 23rd during that same time frame.
Reeves attributes the progress to “third grade gate,” the reform pushed through by Republicans in 2013 that requires third graders to demonstrate they are at least minimally proficient in reading before they advance to fourth grade.
The Republican belief is that the threat of having to repeat a grade has prompted students, their families and teachers to work harder to be sure that doesn’t happen.
Another interpretation has been offered, though. It’s that because of third grade gate, Mississippi’s lowest performing students get an extra year of instruction before they take the fourth grade test. With the state failing more than twice as many students in their early years as the national average, that could create a significant advantage, though probably a short-lived one.
The research remains inconclusive on this point. It’s not on the others.
The supposed historic progress in education in Mississippi is more mirage than it is miracle.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.