GREENWOOD — One thing you can say about the Mississippi Department of Education under the leadership of Dr. Carey Wright. It is consistent.
It is consistently making the state’s high school graduation rate sound better than it is.
Last week, Wright trumpeted how Mississippi set a new record in 2020 with a graduation rate of 87.7%, which now exceeds the national average.
Nothing in her remarks or in the rest of the press release MDE sent out, however, mentioned this salient fact: Last year, Mississippi students were exempted, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, from having to take the four subject-area tests that might have otherwise kept some students from graduating.
Why would a factor as obvious as this be omitted? It’s no accident.
Under Wright and other education leaders before her, Mississippi has persistently been claiming what tremendous education progress it has made, while watering down the standards to make that appear true. It makes Wright look good, makes teachers and schools feel good, and gives the politicians something about which to brag.
But it is intellectually dishonest.
MDE has this graph that it likes to disseminate. It shows a steady, year-after-year improvement in the state’s graduation rate since 2014, when the rate was 74.5%.
In 2013, however, the same year in which Wright arrived on the scene, the state Board of Education adopted several alternatives to earning a diploma if a student could not pass the four standardized tests that previously had been required to graduate. Not coincidentally, the graduation rates began to rise immediately after this, just like this latest dramatic bump coincides with a year in which subject area tests were completely factored out of the equation. MDE officials, however, won’t voluntarily acknowledge any of this unless they are pressed on the matter.
A better indicator of how much the quality of education is improving in this state is the students’ performance on the ACT college admissions test. Those numbers also came out last week, and they are less than back-slapping worthy.
Mississippi’s average composite score was 17.7 in 2020, still well below the national average of just under 21. The state average ticked up from 2019’s average score of 17.6, but it was still less than the 17.8 average posted in 2018. Even more telling, the ACT says that 90% of Mississippi students who took the test failed to hit all four ACT benchmarks in English, math, reading and science. That means, if they go to college, they are unlikely to be able to pass some or all of their courses without remediation.
In other words, Wright and MDE paint this glowing picture of an upward trajectory on which the state’s high school students are headed, while the ACT shows that they are largely stuck in mediocrity.
This spring, high schoolers hoping to graduate are being required to take the subject-area tests, but the results won’t count against them, another accommodation to COVID-19. As a result, it would not be surprising if a year from now Mississippi reports yet another increase in the graduation rate, even while a preponderance of reports nationwide shows that virtual learning is a weak substitute for in-person classes.
It would also not be surprising for Wright to not remind anyone that for the second year in a row, not a single Mississippi senior in the public schools had to pass a subject area test in order to graduate. In truth, based on her history of playing with the statistics, it would be shocking if she did acknowledge that the numbers had some help.
Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.