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Many researchers were amazed to see that the state of Mississippi had a sharp growth in its fourth-grade reading scores.
The surest path to success in fourth-grade reading on NAEP is to hold back third-graders who did not pass the third-grade reading test. It works! It increased Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores. And it worked for Mississippi too! You have to give credit where it is due: Jeb Bush thought up this way to artificially inflate Florida’s NAEP standing. Research has consistently shown that kids who are held back are likelier to drop out of school later, but who cares about them? The scores and ratings are everything! Mississippi holds back a higher percentage of third-graders than any other state. How about those numbers!
One of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary 2019 NAEP report is Mississippi. A long-time cellar dweller in the NAEP rankings, Mississippi students have risen faster than anyone since 2013, particularly for fourth graders. In fourth grade reading results, Mississippi boosted its ranking from forty-ninth in 2013 to twenty-ninth in 2019; in math, they zoomed from fiftieth to twenty-third. Adjusted for demographics, Mississippi now ranks near the top in fourth grade reading and math according to the Urban Institute’s America’s Gradebook report.
So how have they done it? Education commentators have pointed to several possible causes: roll-out of early literacy programs and professional development (Cowen & Forte), faithful implementation of Common Core standards (Petrilli), and focus on the “science of reading” (State Superintendent Carey Wright).
But one key part of Mississippi’s formula has gotten less coverage: holding back low-performing students. In response to the legislature’s 2013 Literacy Based Promotion Act (LBPA), Mississippi schools retain a higher percentage of K–3 students than any other state. (Mississippi-based Bracey Harris of The Hechinger Report is one education writer who has reported on this topic.)
The LBPA created a “third grade gate,” making success on the reading exit exam a requirement for fourth grade promotion. This isn’t a new idea of course. Florida is widely credited with starting the trend in 2003, and now sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have a reading proficiency requirement to pass into fourth grade.
But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K–3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year). This implies that over the four grades, as many as 32 percent of all Mississippi students are held back; a more reasonable estimate is closer to 20 to 25 percent, allowing for some to be held back twice. (Mississippi’s Department of Education does not report how many students are retained more than once.)
Just goes to show: If at first you don’t succeed, fake it.