Mississippi black and Hispanic students outperform Minnesota’s. Here’s why.

The rise of Mississippi as a national exemplar in math and reading growth has given policymakers in other states a model to learn from.

The state made headlines for being only one of two jurisdictions (Washington, D.C. being the other) to attain some of the highest test scores on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the history of their participation, reported The 74 Million. (NAEP 2022 reading and math assessment results are expected fall 2022.)

And Mississippi’s results were not a one-off occurrence. For a number of years, the state has helped students “charg[e] from the back of the pack to the national average in both math and reading.”

And best of all, the prosperity was shared: Black and Hispanic students, including those from low-income families, made huge strides alongside their white and middle-class peers.

Under the leadership of Dr. Carey Wright — who retired the end of June after serving as the State Superintendent of Education since 2013 — Mississippi’s Department of Education overhauled its reading pedagogy and focused on ensuring teachers were trained in the science of reading. State lawmakers also passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA) that retains third graders who cannot read on grade level. (Minnesota third-grade reading legislation allows for retention but does not require it.)

Why this matters for Minnesota

Minnesotans generally take pride in their public schools. But educational disparities and stagnant or in decline test scores have persisted for far too long, despite Minnesota being a high-spending state on education relative to spending across the country.

In both reading and math, Mississippi black and Hispanic students outperform Minnesota’s black and Hispanic students. Its student body is made up of nearly 49 percent black students compared to Minnesota’s 10.7 percent.

Equally important, Mississippi’s NAEP test scores among its black students have been scaling up over the years, compared to Minnesota’s declining scores and inconsistent growth among its black students.

As one of the lowest spending states, Mississippi is showing that how money is spent matters far greater than how much is spent.

Training in the science of reading

Learning from Mississippi’s investment in reading training, Minnesota lawmakers dedicated $3 million during the 2021 legislative session to provide educators training in the science of reading through the same program — the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS). With just 3,000 seats available through the first round of funding, not every early elementary teacher or literacy instructor was able to participate. Legislators will likely revisit additional investment in the program in the future, as agreement over an education bill during the 2022 session was not reached. Notable education provisions offered by Senate Republicans and rejected by Democrats and Gov. Walz included $42.5 million for LETRS training.

Nearly 52 percent of Minnesota’s third graders cannot read at grade level, according to 2021 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) test data, and third-grade reading proficiency has been in decline over the last several years. Statistically, the third-grade reading achievement gap on the MCA has narrowed between white and black students since 2015, but the gap closure is not a positive development because it is a result of white students’ proficiency declining and black student proficiency staying relatively stagnant.

While Mississippi’s state test scores cannot be compared to Minnesota’s as they do not provide an apples-to-apples comparison, it is worth noting that nearly 74 percent of Mississippi’s third graders received a passing score on the state’s reading assessment for the 2021-22 school year — nearly the same as the pre-pandemic pass rate of 74.5 percent.

School choice

Mississippi also offers its families more opportunities to access the learning environment that will meet the unique needs of their children — including two school voucher programs and an Education Savings Account (ESA). These programs help students with disabilities, dyslexia, and special needs access eligible private schools and education services such as licensed therapy, tutoring, dual-enrollment courses, etc. Minnesota Senate Republicans passed legislation on an ESA program that families could use toward tuition at eligible nonreligious schools and on textbooks, tutoring, licensed therapy services, essential computer hardware and software, transportation, etc. Gov. Walz and House Democrats rejected this provision during the 2022 session as well.

This isn’t to say that Mississippi’s education system doesn’t have room for growth, nor does this mean that everything Minnesota is doing isn’t working. But one thing is clear: Successful education reform efforts are underway in numerous states across the country that Minnesota can continue to learn from, with Mississippi being one of them.