What’s missed in Mississippi’s success story

New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an article celebrating the growth in reading scores among Mississippi 4th graders.  Of Mississippi, Kristof writes “It is lifting education outcomes and soaring in the national rankings. With an all-out effort over the past decade to get all children to read by the end of the third grade and by extensive reliance on research and metrics, Mississippi has shown that it is possible to raise standards even in a state ranked dead last in the country in child poverty and hunger and second highest in teen births.” Later in the article, he goes on to note that Mississippi has improved scores despite being near the bottom among all states in education spending.

While this may sound inspiring – a story of a state school system overcoming the odds – Kristof’s story contributes to dangerous and counterproductive narratives around what we view as “success” in education, what “works” in promoting student achievement, the interaction between poverty and economic achievement, and the and the role of schools in solving society’s ills.

What is success?

When we label a school, or a district, or a state system of education as successful, how are we defining success? Kristof writes that based on the 2019 NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often dubbed the nation’s report card), 4th graders in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the country, are in the middle of the pack in terms of reading proficiency and are near the top after accounting for the level of economic hardship in each state.

This is surely wonderful news, and worth applauding. Indeed, Mississippi’s improvements in reading on the 4th grade NAEP are impressive. In 2013, the “scale score” for Mississippi fourth graders was 209, the worst average score in the country; in 2019, it was 219, putting Mississippi 4th graders right at the national average. This is meaningful progress, a sign that many more fourth graders in Mississippi are building foundational reading skills. And it’s particularly noteworthy considering that over this time, fourth grade reading scores for the nation as a whole flatlined, and declined considerably in many states (more on this later).

Kristof is also right to note that Mississippi achieved this growth despite being a high poverty state. Mississippi has the highest proficiency rates in the country among students who qualify for free or reduced priced lunch (a sign of poverty) in fourth grade reading, with 25% of these students scoring proficient or higher (the national average is roughly 18%).

Finally, Kristof is also right to point to Mississippi’s concerted and systemic efforts to emphasize phonics and decoding, the so-called “science of reading” approach that researchers widely agree is the right way to teach young children how to read.

However, this is about the extent of what Kristof gets right.

First, for all the growth Mississippi has achieved, we should be clear-eyed about where Mississippi students are at. In 2019, roughly 31% of Mississippi fourth graders scored proficient or advanced on their 4th grade reading exam. In high-scoring Massachusetts, this figure was 45%. In other words, while Mississippi’s growth is noteworthy, we should not equate growth with success.

One might argue that this is an unfair comparison, given the relative rates of economic disadvantage in the two states. But if our ultimate goal is to get students reading on grade level, the economic hardship a student faces is one of the factors we need to deal with, on par with or taking precedent over anything that goes on in the classroom. From a policy perspective, the performance of a school system is inextricably linked with the economic challenges faced by the students in that school system. We can’t “control” poverty away; rather, it’s a policy challenge we have to confront with the same urgency as and on equal footing with anything that happens inside our schools.

Kids in Mississippi will be living in the same world and competing for the same jobs as kids from Massachusetts, and deserve the same opportunities early in life as children from Massachusetts. In other words, we should not be grading Mississippi kids on a curve, but rather trying to figure out what mix of inputs – both in and out of schools – would enable kids from Mississippi to have the same early education outcomes as kids from Massachusetts.

3rd grade reading laws are not the solution

Second, Kristof credits much of Mississippi’s success in improving 4th grade reading scores with its implementation of a so-called “3rd grade reading law,” mandating the retention of any 3rd grader who is not reading on grade level by the 3rd grade. As Kristof sees it, this law – a variant among similar third grade reading laws implemented over the past two decades in more than half of U.S. states (19 states have laws requiring retention, while a handful of others allow local districts to implement their own retention policies) – has centralized the focus of education leaders on reading in the early grades, and served as a rallying point for students and teachers alike.

This claim has all sorts of problems. First, it’s empirically dubious to suggest that 3rd grade reading laws improve 3rd grade reading outcomes. Of the 17 states that have had a 3rd grade reading law on the books since 2012 (2012 was the year in which most 3rd grade reading laws were passed – more on that in a minute), 11 saw their NAEP scores decline from 2013 to 2019.

And even in states that don’t have a retention law on the books, focus has increasingly been centered on 3rd grade reading over the past decade, as policymakers, philanthropic leaders, and the business community have all reached the conclusion that 3rd grade is “the year.” The result? Since 2013, 4th grade reading scores in 38 states have declined.

There are obviously many potential explanations for this decline, but the most obvious one is the one anti-testing advocates have pointed to for years: when the goals of our education system become too tied to a test, any test, it necessarily narrows the curriculum, and results in less knowledge gained by students (which is critical for reading comprehension), and worse outcomes overall.

Kristof notes in the article that on the days Mississippi students take their high-stakes standardized tests, parents and teachers line the hallways, “cheering madly as the kids walk through to take the test – like champion football players taking the field.” While Kristof writes of this display admiringly, many might see it in a more depressing, perhaps dystopian, light. A reasonable aim for the education we should all want for our children is that they are inspired by a genuine curiosity about the world, and a thirst for knowledge. In Kristof’s telling, the education we should be aiming for is just another competition, where students’ conception of education, and to a certain extent their view of themselves, is reduced to a score on a standardized test.

3rd grade reading vs poverty

Where did our collective obsession with third grade reading come from? And how has this become our national focus instead of, say, ending child poverty?

In writing about Mississippi’s growth despite exceptionally high rates of poverty, Kristof writes, “while Mississippi hasn’t overcome poverty or racism, it still manages to get kids to read and excel.” This is a popular line among folks in the so-called “education reform” movement, and it’s well-intentioned – the idea being that just because a student faces poverty and hardship doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive a high-quality education. But it also has the effect of excusing inaction on child poverty which, if properly addressed, would have an enormous positive impact on student achievement, perhaps over and above any school-based intervention.

I mentioned earlier that the real explosion of 3rd grade reading laws occurred in 2012. The spark that caused this explosion was a report put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation titled “Double Jeopardy,” which suggested that students who could not read proficiently by 3rd grade were far less likely to graduate from high school than students who could. This report was an odd one to launch a nationwide movement. It was roughly a dozen pages long, was not peer-reviewed, and presented mostly associational data – that is, it didn’t show that low reading skills in the 3rd grade were causally related to high school graduation. This matters because a number of other variables – poverty, trauma, low school funding, exposure to lead-based paint hazards – may also have been present in the lives of struggling 3rd graders, and may have been more responsible for both their early literacy struggles and their eventual drop out from high school.

In fact, the Double Jeopardy report does show, when read in a different light, that the experience of living in poverty is more strongly associated with not graduating from high school than one’s third grade reading score. The report shows that 22% of children who experienced poverty at any point from 2nd grade to 11th grade did not graduate from high school, whether they passed their 4th grade NAEP exam or not. Thirty-two percent of students who spent more than half of their childhoods in poverty did not graduate from high school. And while the title of the report – “double jeopardy” – suggests that the risk of drop-out was much higher if a student was poor and failed to achieve reading proficiency by the fourth grade, in actuality the risk of drop-out for this group only increased by 4 percentage points compared to the low-income population overall, to 26%. The real danger, it turns out, was not 4th grade reading ability, but growing up in poverty.

And becoming a proficient reader in the fourth grade did not exactly serve as a bulwark against drop out for low-income students: among poor students who did pass their 4th grade NAEP, 11% still failed to graduate. On the other hand, of those students who did not experience poverty, just 6% failed to graduate from high school; if they were not proficient on the 4th grade NAEP, the figure rose to 9%. So if you were a non-poor student who was not proficient in reading in the fourth grade, you were more likely to graduate from high school than a poor student who was proficient in reading in the fourth grade.

In other words, while the report galvanized a nationwide movement of laws centered around high-stakes testing in early elementary school, it could have just as easily – and perhaps should have – galvanized a nationwide effort to eradicate childhood poverty.

Yet Kristof’s messaging – that poverty should not be an excuse for low educational attainment –  though likely not intentional, has the effect of excusing lawmakers from working towards the elimination of poverty and economic instability, instead placing the responsibility back on underfunded schools and poor students to work themselves out of their present circumstances.

The strong and growing evidence base for increasing school funding

Finally, Kristof notes that Mississippi was able to achieve reading gains despite being one of lowest spending education states in the country. Again, while perhaps well-intentioned, these kinds of statements contribute to the narrative (which state legislatures across the country are already primed to believe), that we already spend enough on education, and just have to spend the money better. This narrative persists even though there is a solid and growing evidence base suggesting that boosting K-12 funding may be one of the most effective interventions we can make, to boost student achievement in the short-term, and improve overall educational achievement in the long-term. Research from C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico found that if a poor child attends a school that receives a 20% increase in school funding, that is maintained throughout a child’s 12 years of public education, she is likely to complete nearly one additional year of education, earn 25% more as an adult, and is 20 percentage-points less likely to be poor as an adult, compared to students who didn’t receive the same level of funding in either duration or intensity.

As educational interventions go, these are huge effects. The authors write that the size of the effects are large enough to eliminate two-thirds of the gap in these measures of life outcomes between students raised in poor and non-poor families. In other words, more school funding now has a major impact on future economic mobility. This research also found that increased funding had little to no impact on children from non-poor families, perhaps because their schools were already well-resourced, and/or the positive effects of their home lives were more important than any school effects. This suggests school funding enhancements might be that much more critical in poorer districts and poorer states, like Mississippi.

In addition to these important long-term outcomes, more recent research from Jackson has found that declining school funding may also be related to declining student achievement on standardized tests. I mentioned before that 4th grade NAEP scores have been declining nationally since 2013, after nearly a quarter century of consistent improvement. A recent paper by Jackson found that scores declined the most in states that were most reliant on state revenue sources in funding their K-12 education systems, and therefore saw the largest declines in per-pupil funding during and in the years after the Great Recession.

In other words, while Kristof uses Mississippi as an example of how a state can overcome the odds, and grow 4th grade reading scores despite really high rates of poverty and really low school funding, a reasonable reader might also ask: why should we be asking states to “overcome the odds” when it’s possible, through public policy, to simply change the odds, for all states and for all kids, by investing in what a rich body of research tells us will boost student outcomes – investing in the economic stability of kids and increasing school funding.

3rd grade reading scores are not destiny

One final note on 3rd grade reading.

Another problem with our disproportionate focus on 3rd grade reading is that whatever gains are made or not by the 3rd grade don’t appear to be lasting. The entire premise for our all-consuming focus on reading by third grade is that if a student fails to read proficiently by age 9, it will lead to all these terrible outcomes later in life. And that if they can read proficiently, they are on a trajectory towards continued success.

The problem is it turns out that at the population level, how students score in the 3rd grade seem to have very little relationship with how they score just a few years later. As an example, we can look at the 4th grade reading NAEP scores in 2015, compared to the 8th grade reading NAEP scores in 2019. This is the same cohort of students, who were 4th graders in 2015 and 8th graders in 2019.

As it turns out, 4th grade NAEP scores are not destiny: states, and the students taking these tests within those states, can and did make significant progress, or not, between those years. In more than half of U.S. states, students improved their relative standing in reading between 2015 and 2019. In 2015, 4th graders in California scored 10 points below the national average; by 2019, those same students, now in 8th grade, were within 4 points of the national average. Fourth graders in Idaho and Illinois were, in 2015, below the national average, but by 8th grade were a few points above. And here in Michigan, our 4th graders were six points below the national average in 2015, but by 8th grade were above the national average.

A similar story can be told the other way – states whose students were flying high in the 4th grade, but by 8th grade were performing much worse. In 2015, Florida 4th graders were scoring five points above the national average, but by 2019, their relative scores had fallen to the national average. This is a particularly poignant example because for years Florida was held up as the model on which Michigan should base its education policies, largely because of their success on the 4th grade NAEP – gains which turned out to be transitory.

We’ve been led to believe that 3rd grade is the “make it or break it” year, the year in which students will either be placed on or off track, for good. But this, of course, is not true. As Nell Duke, an early literacy expert at the University of Michigan, has written, “there is nothing magical about reading by the third grade in particular.” The act of learning to read, with fluency and comprehension, starts much earlier, and lasts much longer, than this arbitrary point that we’ve set. Even the most basic analysis shows this is the case. Between 2015 and 2019, many Michigan students who were not proficient in reading, gained more proficiency; Florida students who may have been just fine in fourth grade, may have found themselves struggling a few years later.

The point here is not, of course, that we shouldn’t focus on students reading in the 3rd grade – indeed, we should heap resources on schools in the early years to ensure all students have the supports they need to learn this complex skill. The larger point is that we shouldn’t place so much emphasis on student performance in this single point in time, particularly at the expense of so many other educational aims we have for our kids. And there are real costs. More time spent on “reading instruction” can be reduced to more worksheets and skill drills, and less time on engaging content, and building knowledge about the world. Indeed, one hypothesis for stagnant reading scores on the NAEP, advanced most prominently by Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia, is that students don’t have enough background knowledge and vocabulary to be able to comprehend the words they are looking at on the page. Said differently, reading comprehension is context dependent – you must have some baseline understanding of what you’re reading about in order to construct a mental picture in which you can assimilate and store new information. Researchers have shown that students who appear to be expert readers when reading a passage about soccer can turn into novice readers when reading about baseball, all based on the background knowledge they have about the subject at hand. The prescription in this case is not a quick fix reading program, but a broad-based enriching and engaging education, from birth through high school. Which doesn’t fit very well into a New York Times headline.

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