More To Mississippi “Success” Than Meets The Eye

Editor’s note:  When results of the most recent National Assement of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores were released, folks far and wide gave Mississippi accolades for drastically increasing their scores.  This was especally true here in Alabama where politicians touted this achievement when they said that we need to get rid of our elected school board and turn our schools over to the control of lawmakers..

But as this article from the Fordham Institute points out, the secret to their success probably has more to do with the fact that they retain a higher percentage of third graders than any other state.  And since NAEP tests only fourth and eight graders, this extra year of schooling no doubt plays a role.  The Mississippi legislature passed the Literacy Based Promotion Act in 2013 which retains third-graders unless they pass a reading test.  Not to be outdone, the Alabama legislature passed the Alabama Literacy Act in 2019, so perhaps our NAEP scores may someday also make amazing gains.  Of course, the fact that research shows students who are retained and overage are more likely to become dropouts is secondary to politicians having something to brag about.

Here are key excerpts from the Fordham Institute article:

“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?

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.

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.)

These retention levels are much higher than other states. The closest are Oklahoma at 6 percent and Alabama at 5 percent. Florida, probably the most well-known example, today holds back 4 percent of its K–3 students, including 8 percent of third graders. When it first enacted its retention policy in 2003–04, Florida’s third grade retention rose as high as 14 percent before steadily declining; it has risen again in recent years. The average for all states is about 3 percent; many states have retention rates of 2 percent or less.

Among the flurry of literacy initiatives in Mississippi, how important is retention to its NAEP results? It’s hard to know for sure, especially without student-level data, but simple modeling suggests it may be a significant factor. Retained students are by definition the lowest performing readers, scoring in the bottom category of Mississippi’s third grade exam. As part of the LBPA, after being held back, they receive a variety of supports, including “intensive reading intervention” and being assigned to a high-performing teacher. Assuming that those policies improve their achievement, they should certainly score better once reaching fourth grade than they otherwise would have.

So is Mississippi’s lesson for educators that they should increase student retention? The traditional view of retaining students is strongly negative. In 2004, school psychology researcher Shane Jimerson famously labeled it “educational malpractice.” According to Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond (now President of the California State Board of Education), “The findings are about as consistent as any findings are in education research: the use of [retention based on] testing is counterproductive, it does not improve achievement over the long run, but it does dramatically increase dropout rates.”

More recently, Martin West and others, looking at the results from Florida’s 2003 retention policy, have taken a more positive view of the impact of early-grade retention, like that practiced by Mississippi. They report that third-grade retention increases high school grade point average and leads to fewer remedial courses, though it does not increase graduation rates (or lower them). With the first Florida cohorts now in early adulthood, we may get a better view of retention’s long-term impact. While some have criticized Florida’s past NAEP score gains as “dubious” and “highly misleading” due to its retention policy, others claim they represent “genuine progress.”

In the meantime, Mississippi isn’t waiting. Buoyed by the perceived success of the 2013 standards, last year the legislature raised the third-grade exit bar even higher, leading to 14 percent of the state’s third-graders failing the test, and 10 percent being ultimately retained (in some counties, up to 45 percent failed and 40 percent were retained).”

Latest Legislative Brainstorm Is Classic Example Of Why Amendment One Should Be Defeated

If Amendment One passes on March 3, the legislature, more specifically the state senate, will control public education.  That’s because while the governor will appoint state school board members, they must be confirmed by the senate.

And if you want to see what whacky ideas members of the legislature conjure up for public schools, look no farther than all the recent talk about not having school from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

While it sounds simple enough, this idea runs smack dab up against the requirement that students have 1,080 instruction hours in a school year.  This is a totally unrealistic proposal and has teachers and administrators from one end of the state to the other up in arms.

According to an experienced educator I trust whole-heartedly, squeezing the school year into this time frame would mean no professional development days for teachers can be embedded into the school year, Thanksgiving holiday would be only Friday and Saturday, Christmas holiday could not begin before December 23 and spring break would be eliminated

In addition, chronic absenteeism would sky rocket for students as parents would simply take them out of school for traditional holidays so they could travel.   Since absenteeism is one of the factors by which schools are graded these days, the public perception of the job schools are doing would be hurt (which is what legislators love to shout about).

Without holidays, professional development or workdays built into the calendar, there will be an escalation of teacher burnout at the very time we are screaming about teacher shortages.  And every day a teacher is out, a day of good instruction for students is lost because they have a substitute teacher.

Our focus needs to be on providing business and industry with a well-rounded, educated and trained workforce.  A  shortened  school  year will not provide that outcome,” according to my source.

And this is the kind of thinking we need directing public education?

Only if we are trying to go backward–not forward.


The Rumors Of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

A few days ago I unexpectedly got a call from a friend in Lawrence County who somewhat nervously asked me if I was OK.  When I told him that I was, he explained that he had heard someone name of Larry Lee from Prattville was missing.  Later he sent me the link to a news article from a north Alabama TV station with the story about my missing namesake.

Then my happenstance, I came across a post on Facebook from Lavon Lee of McKenzie explaining that his brother, Larry Lee, had wandered away from home last weekend, got stuck on a dirt road and walked eight miles through a storm.  He was taken to Jackson Hospital in Montgomery where he passed away.

Since the woods around McKenzie and south Butler County are full of my Lee kinfolks, no doubt me and the other Larry Lee shared some common ancestors.  In fact, I know a Larry Lee from the same area who lives outside Atlanta.

Since the first phone calls, I have had several emails asking if I was OK.  I appreciate all who have shown concern.  But I have to chuckle as I think about sending an email to someone in a similar circumstance.  No doubt what you really want to ask is. “Are you dead?

But even if they were, this would seem a tad forward.

So thanks for the memories.  And if you are inclined to send flowers, may I suggest that you just go up to the corner of this page and hit PayPal instead.


And on this somber note, last Wednesday I was in Greenville to speak to the Butler County retired educators about Amendment One.  It was 10 a.m.  Prior to the meeting I asked a Mr. Henderson if he knew my longtime friend Richard Hartley.

I was stunned when he replied, “His funeral is at 11 o’clock.”

I met Richard in 1982.  We became good friends and shared many laughs and experiences.  Among other things, he was chair of the Butler County school board for 28 years.

I knew he was battling cancer, but had no clue it had advanced so rapidly.

This news was just another reminder of how fleeting our time on this earth is.



A Lesson In Civility

As already mentioned here, Sunday afternoon Feb. 9 I participated in a League of Women  Voters forum in Dothan to debate the pros and cons of Amendment One.  I opposed the measure.  Senator Greg Albritton from Atmore supported it.

I had done my homework and so had he.  We both spoke with passion and conviction.  There was no doubt we were on opposite sides.

However, we were friends when we got there and we were friends when we left.

I respect Greg and the fact that he was duly elected by the majority of voters in his senate district.  He certainly has a right to his viewpoint and his opinions.  I have no doubt he feels the same about me.

Our exchanges were lively and even interspersed with moments of laughter and good will.

In other words, we were civil.

And as I drove back home to Montgomery, I couldn’t help but think of how what had just played out was in such stark contrast to what we see far too often in politics these days, especially in Washington.  Both civility and respect have become four letter words in the nation’s capital where if someone disagrees with you they are usually ridiculed, berated and the object of insults.

We are destroying what is most dear to this republic. The presumption that as a whole we are better than the sum of all our parts.  That all citizens should be treated with dignity, not chastised because they don’t think like we do.

I understand better than most that 2020 is an election year and that in such times, passion often replaces common sense.  But even so, even that does not condone so much of the junk we see on TV and Facebook right now.

It is shameful.

Of course, I will vote NO on amendment one.  And Greg will vote YES.

But to me the larger lesson of this forum was not so much about the pros and cons of this legislation as it was that civil discourse and disagreement can–and should–be conducted with civility.

When it is not, we are all diminished.




“Let Us Go To Dothan”

Editor’s note:  Genesis tells us the story of Joseph looking for his brothers and being told that they went to Dothan.  So, like Joseph, Sunday afternoon Feb. 9 I went to Dothan.  But I was looking for a forum conducted by the Southeast Alabama League of Women Voters to discuss Amendment One that will be on the ballot on March 3.  I was invited to speak against the amendment, while my friend Senator Greg Albirtton of Atmore was on the other side of the fence.

There was a good and diverse crowd.  The LWV ladies are to be commended for hosting this event.

Here are my remarks:

“Amendment One is little more than a sham, built on faulty numbers and making false promises. It is another example of the elites in Montgomery trying to take away our right to vote and seize more and more power.

The proponents of this amendment are talking out of both sides of their mouth as they distort results from a national test not aligned with the standards we use while promising to rid classrooms of other national standards—which this amendment does not do.

Amendment One is not about helping the 715,000 students in our public schools, it is about control. Public education has been under attack since the Republican supermajority took control in 2010 and this is just the latest—and boldest—step in that direction.

The elites love numbers. Which is why you hear them talk about Alabama’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, commonly referred to as NAEP–probably the most misunderstood scores you can find.

Time after time we hear someone shout that our 4th grade math scores are the lowest in the country, so our schools must be terrible. However, they never give any context.

Every two years we randomly select 5,000 4th and 8th graders in Alabama to take NAEP. But standards used for NAEP do not align to Alabama standards so we are testing students on things they have never been taught.

There are 715,000 students in our public schools. 5,000 is six-tenths of one percent of them. There are 15,192 students in Dothan and Houston County. Six tenths of one percent are 91 students.

Does anyone in this room honestly think test scores from just 91 students would give you an accurate assessment of how your schools are doing?

State NAEP scores were first published in 1992. Most of this time Massachusetts has been at the top of NAEP rankings. So, some constantly want to compare us to Massachusetts.

When you do this, you find something quite interesting. Alabama has actually made greater gains in NAEP since 1992 than Massachusetts has.

Does anyone here think Dothan city schools should be compared to those in Mountain Brook? There are 4,320 students in Mountain Brook, only 23 receive free or reduced lunches. By comparison, of the 8,536 students in Dothan city, 5,606 are on free-reduced lunches.

No other single factor influences test scores as much as poverty does.

Comparing Alabama to Massachusetts is comparing Dothan to Mountain Brook. It is nonsense, but we do it all the time.

Of course, we don’t have perfect schools in Alabama. And we never will.

But we have amazing teachers and principals doing amazing things with very limited resources. I see them in schools constantly.

To say they are terrible based on a test given every two years to less than one percent of all students makes no sense.

And if our schools are so bad and our kids so dumb, how in the world have we created 40,000 jobs in the automotive industry in the last 25 years?

In addition to this, the elites believe they can hoodwink the public by making the false claim that Amendment One will eliminate Common Core.

This is untrue. All you have to do is read the legislation.

Here is what it says:

“In addition to any function or duty provided by general law, the commission shall adopt all of the following:

a. Course of study standards that ensure nationwide consistency and the seamless transfer of students from within and outside of the state, in lieu of common come.”

If I have ever heard political double talk, this is it because “standards that ensure nationwide consistency and the seamless transfer of students from within and outside of the state ARE standards like common core.

This is like passing a law that says the University of Alabama must change their football uniforms—but the new ones must be red and white and have a large script A on them.

There is great irony in the fact that this March we will celebrate the march over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in 1965 when people risked their lives for the right to vote.

Yet this March we are being asked to vote to give up our right to vote on members of the state school board.

If Amendment One passes, the governor will nominate people to serve on the state school board. But they must all be confirmed by the State Senate which is controlled by 27 white, male Republicans and run with an iron hand by senate majority leader Del Marsh.

This board will then hire a state school superintendent, but again, this must be confirmed by the senate.

The reality is that Amendment One would make Del Marsh the czar of Alabama public education.

That thought scares every educator in the state.

The attack on our public schools It started with a special session in late 2010 when the supermajority stopped educators from serving in the House or Senate. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, insurance folks, business folks, eye doctors and anyone else you can think of who can serve—but not educators.

In 2012 we passed the A-F school report card bill. The next educator I find who says this law has any worthwhile value will be the first one I’ve found.

In 2013 we passed the Alabama Accountability Act that has now diverted $155 million from the Education Trust Fund to give scholarships to private schools. This now amounts to $215 per public school student—or $3.2 million for Houston County and Dothan schools. That’s about $5,000 per classroom.

The most recent numbers show Houston Academy has 15 scholarships and Northside Methodist has 68. None of these students were attending a failing school before getting a scholarship—yet we were told when this law passed that it was all about “helping poor kids stuck in failing schools by their zip code.”

In 2015 we passed the charter school law which has been a disaster with LEAD Academy in Montgomery where I live and in Washington County which is one of Senator Albritton’s counties.

Last Monday the state charter commission came down hard on LEAD Academy and Woodland Prep in Washington County. They told LEAD they lack institutional control and began the process to revoke the application for Woodland Prep.

It should be noted that the charter commission is an appointed board with nominees coming from the governor, lt. governor, speaker of the house and senate majority leader.

If Alabama has had a jewel in its crown, it is the Alabama Reading Initiative that started 20 years ago. There was $64 million in the 2009 education budget for ARI. But by 2018 this was cut to $41 million by the supermajority. A reduction of 35 percent.

Of course, we hear a lot about teacher shortages these days. So, what did we do? Eight years ago, the supermajority cut benefits for new teachers by 20 percent according to the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

And we should now turn over public education to these people? That makes as much sense as Georgia building a monument to General Sherman.

We have now done three surveys on my blog about Amendment One since last summer.

The most recent was in January with more than 500 responses.

79 percent of respondents were either retired educators, teachers or employees of a public school system.

43 percent said they were republicans, while 31 percent were independents and 25 percent were democrats.

65 percent were female, 86 percent were Caucasian.

93 percent said they will vote NO on amendment one.

One thing that jumped out like a sore thumb is that 66 percent of them rated the legislature either a D or an F.

And 86 percent said they have “very little” confidence in Del Marsh doing what is in the best interest of public schools.

I find it very interesting that while 65 percent of respondents were female and 43 percent were Republicans, they are not in agreement with the Republican dominated legislature on this issue.

There are 104 Republicans in the House and Senate. Only 8 of these, all in the House, are female.

When Democrat Andy Beshear narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Matt Bevin for governor of Kentucky last fall, many felt it was because many suburban Republican women did not vote for Bevin.

The results of this survey indicate that this contention has merit.

It is also worth noting that last August the 400-member Alabama Republican Executive Committee voted 2 to 1 to oppose Amendment One.

To me, the most meaningful takeaway from this survey—and all the others we have done–is the huge gap between how those interested in public education see things and how they are viewed by the legislature.

When Del Marsh passed the Alabama Accountability Act, not a soul in education, even the state superintendent at the time Tommy Bice, knew what was going on and Marsh later bragged that he kept educators in the dark because they might have opposed this bill.

So, on March 3rd we will vote on an amendment that has huge implications for education, but was written without input from those most impacted.

Until legislative leadership shows a willingness to seek advice from those they wish to govern, we will continue to squander opportunities for our children.

Amendment One is no more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It should be rejected.”