(Updated with Added Discussion)
One of the big shocks in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was the dramatic rise in fourth grade performance for the State of Mississippi. Whether we look at overall average student scores or break it down by performance for whites and blacks, the two predominant racial groups in Kentucky’s schools, the NAEP data for Mississippi is getting lots of attention.
I’ve already written a blog about this with graphs like this one that show what has happened over time.
However, there always seems to be more to almost any education story, and a Thomas B. Fordham Institute post from Todd Collins, Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back, provides a case in point.
Collins surmises that the rise in the Mississippi scores is due to that state instituting a strong third grade retention policy for students who don’t pass a state reading assessment. Those retained students are required to get intensive intervention and a high-performing teacher to improve their performance.
Collins indicates this Mississippi policy has given that state the largest lower elementary level grade retention rates in the nation.
And, the policy changes the composition of the fourth-grade class in the Magnolia State.
Others are also asking questions and providing more information. Bracey Harris writes in the Hechinger Reports’ Mississippi made the biggest leap in national test scores this year. Is this controversial law the reason why? that until this year the passing bar on the Mississippi Grade 3 reading test was not set very high. Harris says:
“In previous years, students scoring above the state’s lowest performance category or the minimal level could move on to fourth grade.”
Thus, if the actual reading bar wasn’t very high in Mississippi, the real impact of the retention policy on the 2019 NAEP is even more difficult to judge, though that impact seems likely to increase when the next NAEP cycle is completed in 2021.
In any event, the present academic makeup of the fourth-grade class in Mississippi is probably somewhat different from that in a lot of other states. Most states, responding to the popular research idea that retention generally is bad, don’t hold many students back. In contrast, if you are in the fourth grade in Mississippi, you need to be at least a minimally solid reader, and the members of your Mississippi class could include a fairly notable number of older students who spent extra time in the Kindergarten to Grade 3 levels before learning to read well enough to join your class.
(Added) However, the differences in Mississippi, at least as far as the 2019 NAEP goes, might not be that significant. This table shows the enrollment in Grades 3 and 4 by year in the state. The data came from the Mississippi Department of Education’s web site. Also included in the table is the difference in the Grade 4 enrollment from the previous year’s Grade 3 enrollment and that difference as a percentage of the current year’s Grade 4 enrollment.
For example, in 2013 the Grade 3 enrollment was 37,732 students and the next year the Grade 4 enrollment was 37,007. The difference was only 725 students. But, according to the Hechinger’s article, the Grade 3 retention policy didn’t start until 2015. The difference between the Grade 3 enrollment in 2015 of 38,074 and the 2016 Grade 4 enrollment of 36,085 increased notably to 1,989. However, that difference had decreased again to only 680 students by the time the 2019 NAEP was administered. So, it looks like the retention policy transition had worked out by that time and there wasn’t any difference to the pre-retention policy situation.
Also note that the new retention policy cut score on the Grade 3 test, which took effect this year, might have had a big impact as the difference between the 2019 Grade 3 enrollment and the current school term’s Grade 4 enrollment is notable. Perhaps this too will be reduced over time as happened with the first policy implementation after 2015.
The major point here is that the retention policy might not have impacted the NAEP Grade 4 sample from Mississippi as much as the writers from Fordham and Hechinger seem to postulate. (End Addition)
It’s worth noting that the education system in the US is designed to teach reading up to the end of Grade 3. After that, instruction is predicated on the assumption that students can now read to learn. So, if a student in the fourth grade or later cannot read, that student is in great danger of academic failure. Thus, the fact that the kids in Grade 4 in Mississippi have produced some attention-grabbing performance on the NAEP is very important.
The Mississippi situation might actually be blazing a trail towards a much better understanding of the true pluses and minuses of retention. Maybe the research that shows retention is a bad idea is flawed in some way (always a concern with the vast majority of education research – just ask Arthur Levine, whose Educating School Teachers and Educating Researchers are classics about the subject of the quality of education research).
In any event, students are individuals, and some undoubtedly need more time to learn than others.
A key question will be how well Mississippi’s remedial programs operate. If Mississippi develops a huge glut of children who are not advancing beyond Grade 3, that would be a problem. But, if the Magnolia State is actually doing a better job of meeting each individual student’s needs by successfully providing extra help to those who need it, that is something we definitely need to pay attention to. (Added) Along those lines, the good news is that the history in the enrollment figures discussed above indicates that the quality of education actually improved after the first retention policy was implemented in 2015. If further adjustments to improve reading instruction occur in response to the new cut scores for the Grade 3 test, that will be great news indeed. (End Added)