Has Mississippi Performed a Reading Miracle?

While we all wait for the inevitable conclusion to the House impeachment debate, Bob Somerby has me pondering yet another education mystery. A couple of weeks ago Emily Hanford wrote in the New York Times that Mississippi had substantially increased its fourth graders’ reading ability recently:

What’s up in Mississippi? There’s no way to know for sure what causes increases in test scores, but Mississippi has been doing something notable: making sure all of its teachers understand the science of reading.

….But a lot of teachers don’t know this science. In 2013, legislators in Mississippi provided funding to start training the state’s teachers in the science of reading….Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by 10 points since 2013, when the state began the effort to train its teachers in the science of reading. Correlation isn’t causation, but Mississippi has made a huge investment in helping teachers learn the science behind reading.

It turns out that this “science” of reading is twofold: kids have to learn how to decode letter sounds into words and then they have to understand what the words mean. This doesn’t sound especially revolutionary to me, but what do I know? In any case, I naturally got curious about these test scores, so here they are:

It’s true that Mississippi’s reading scores went up a lot between 2013 and 2019. But I’d make a couple of comments about this:

  • Mississippi’s 4th grade reading scores have been going up steadily since 1992. They increased eight points between 2002 and 2009 and then ten points between 2013 and 2019.
  • The biggest part of the recent rise was between 2013 and 2015, but it’s unlikely that a program that had just gotten funded in 2013 and was barely off the ground had much to do with that.

As usual, then, I’m skeptical that Mississippi has discovered a magic bullet. They have done a good job of catching up to the rest of the country over the past 30 years, and that’s worth celebrating. But I’d wait a bit to see if their new reading program continues to sustain improved reading scores.

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