Mississippi: Improving Literacy and Numeracy

Key takeaway: A sustained commitment to improving education through policy, educator supports, and strategic alignment of goals around literacy has led to nation-leading gains in reading and math proficiency between 2011 and 2019 in a state where about half of public-school students are Black.

Success Factors

Mississippi has 4 out of 6.

Leadership

There must be a vision for what a state wants to achieve, from governors or other key policy makers.

Policy

Leadership vision must be backed by a clear policy agenda, based on evidence, that is adopted and implemented.

Supports

As policy is being implemented, aligned supports – including funding – are provided to increase the chances for success.

Strategic Alignment

Intentional coordination is made across policy and funding to better connect work in Early childhood, K-12, Postsecondary, and Workforce.

Stakeholder Engagement

Efforts to improve student success are backed by stakeholders with a vested interest in improved outcomes (parents, students, the business community, advocates, philanthropies).

Sustained Commitment

Improving access to opportunity for all young people requires efforts to be sustained, often over many years and across political administrations.

The wins

Mississippi has traditionally ranked toward the bottom for academic achievement in the United States, but recent efforts to improve are paying off. The state had some of the largest percentage-point gains across all 50 states between 2011 and 2019:

  • Fourth-grade reading proficiency increased by 10 percentage points, the biggest change across all 50 states (NAEP). Significantly, that includes an increase of eight percentage points for Black students.
  • Eighth-grade reading proficiency increased by four percentage points, the seventh-highest gain among the states (NAEP).  This is the sixth-best improvement for Black students in the country, and the largest gains for Hispanic students.
  • Fourth-grade math scores (NAEP) increased by 14 percentage points, the biggest improvement nationally.  That includes a 12-point improvement for Black students.  These gains mean that about 5,000 more students meet math-proficiency standards each year, including 2,000 more Black fourth graders.
  • Of the 41 states that participated in the eighth-grade math NAEP in both 2011 and 2019, Mississippi ranked 37th in Black student proficiency in 2011. In 2019 it was 14th, far ahead of neighboring Alabama (40th), Louisiana (37th), and Arkansas (38th).
  • Eighth-grade NAEP math proficiency improved by five percentage points, second-largest gain among the 50 states.

How it happens

Mississippi’s improvements in education can be attributed to a clear policy agenda advanced with strategic alignment by setting and maintaining clear standards and conducting comprehensive assessments. The state also made the decision to align standards and assessments to reflect the NAEP framework and supplemented this strategy with increased supports to educators through professional development and a sustained commitment over time. 

Policy

Leaders in Mississippi made a big bet focusing on improving literacy and not wavering from that goal. In 2013, the Mississippi state legislature passed SB 2347, the Literacy-Based Promotion Act a comprehensive approach to teaching all children to read as early as kindergarten that included the following: 

  • Statewide training to support teachers with scientifically based reading instruction and intervention
  • Reading coaches to provide job-embedded training and support for teachers
  • Early identification of K-3 students who have a reading deficiency 
  • Notification of and regular communication with parents of students identified as having a reading deficiency
  • Individual reading plans, created in collaboration with the parent, prescribing the immediate specialized instruction and supports that will be provided to the student identified with a reading deficiency
  • Retention for third graders who don’t meet the cut score for promotion
  • Good cause exemptions from retention to recognize the needs of some students 
  • Specific intervention services for retained third-grade students, including resources to support parents with literacy activities at home

Strategic Alignment

Mississippi leaders made a concerted effort to align state standards and assessments with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), significantly increasing rigor.

Supports

Mississippi’s commitment has also included regional and on-demand educator supports and professional development for math and literacy.  Leaders also focused on implementation, recognizing that operational support for new policies was required to change meaningfully educator practice.

Sustained Commitment

By reinforcing rigorous academic standards with an aligned state assessment and staying the course even after a steep drop in scores in the first year of the transition, Mississippi has shown how a significant commitment from leaders can yield impressive growth for students.

Why it matters

Mississippi is prioritizing improving the education of its population, rather than focusing on importing talent, as some other states are doing. As a result, Mississippi is seeing improvements across its K-12 pipeline, with notable increases in NAEP reading and math proficiency, as well as state assessment proficiency in math among eighth graders. State leaders’ credit improved reading proficiency with also improving math proficiency. Research conducted over the years (like this study or this study) confirms that view. The increasing performance across K-12 indicators began in 2015-2016. The state should expect to see the effect of these gains in the postsecondary sector and the workforce in 2020 and going forward.

Data – coming soon

State longitudinal data systems (SLDS) that connect across systems of education and into the workforce are foundational to strong decision-making by state leaders.  Policy makers need reliable, relevant, and transparent data to help inform those decisions and measure the success of current policies.  Researchers need access to data to help stakeholders better understand the current state and to identify possible solutions.  A measure of each state’s data system will be added to this tool in January 2021. 

What to watch

Mississippi has made impressive gains but is still among the bottom states by some of these measures. For example, the state’s ranking rose to 42nd out of 50 states in fourth-grade reading proficiency in 2019 from 49th in 2011, but there is still substantial room for improvement.  Continued success will require continued commitment and focus by state leadership.