Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson blames legislators for the state's low rank in a national summary of elementary school math grades. "The Nation's Report Card: Mathematics 2009," released yesterday, outlines achievements of fourth- and eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics test, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The report compares national results in 2009 with prior assessments, and concluded that the state of Mississippi hit rock bottom, second to last behind the District of Columbia, with few improvements among the children tested.
The report reveals that the average score of eighth-grade students in Mississippi in 2009 was 265. While higher than the state's average score of 246 in 1992, it still rated far lower than the average score of 282 for public school students across the nation.
The report also found the percentage of eighth-grade students in Mississippi who performed at or above the NAEP "proficient" level was 15 percent in 2009, not significantly different from 2007, when it was 14 percent. Likewise, the percentage of students in Mississippi who performed at or above the NAEP "basic" level was 54 percent in 2009, the exact same percentage the state registered in 2007.
The numbers also show a large and persistent performance gap between black and white students in Mississippi and across the U.S. In 2009, Mississippi's black eighth-grade students had an average score that was 28 points lower than that of white students, with the gap closing only slightly, by five points, since 1992. The state's 2009 data mirrors performance between black and white students nationwide, where the gap is 26 points.
Johnson said the blame lies with the legislature's inability to fund districts containing a high number of at-risk students.
"This comes down to money," Johnson said. "Impoverished school districts suffer because we have an inequitable tax structure for funding school districts. Madison or Desoto County, where you have a strong local tax base, are able to offer more courses, provide more support for students and pay teachers a higher salary than districts such as Holmes County, which are tax poor counties. All they have to rely on is the state education funding (devised to add additional resources for districts with a higher percentage of at-risk students), which state legislators have regularly failed to fund."
Johnson's argument reflects another statistic recorded in The Nation's Report Card, which outlines the performance gap between students provided free meals. In 2009, students who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch (an indicator of poverty by many standards) scored 27 points lower, on average, than students who were not eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. The state's 2009 performance was one point lower than the gap in 1996.
Legislators enacted the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to distribute money to some of the poorer districts, but Johnson said the state funding formula was failing to address the issue, because legislators were utterly neglecting a vital second portion of the solution.
"The part that has never been supported was at-risk funding, which gives additional funding for students in the lower economic ranking, which would provide more resources for those cash-poor districts," Johnson said.
Gov. Haley Barbour and House Democrats sparred repeatedly over adequate funding for at-risk schools, with the governor and the Republican-dominated Senate regularly advocating budget savings over at-risk funding.
Nancy Loome, executive director of school lobbying group The Parent's Campaign, said the MAEP formula calls upon the legislature to provide an extra 5 percent for at-risk students, determined by their eligibility for the free lunch program. The money goes to the school district hosting the at-risk students.
"Some studies argue that the 5 percent needs to be increased, possibly up to 40 percent, to be brought to the same level as their peers who are not living in poverty, but the Department of Education did a survey on how districts were spending their 5 percent, and districts were largely unable to say how they were spending it," Loome said.
Loome said districts were usually applying their extra 5 percent funding to plug holes left by legislators' inability to fully fund MAEP. Still, Loome said the organization stopped lobbying for an increase to at-risk schools until districts could "get a handle on how they were investing those dollars."
"We agree that students should have more resources, but we've got to show that districts are being responsible on how they're using those funds, or it becomes a credibility issue," Loome said. "But this will be difficult until the Legislature fully funds MAEP on a regular basis."
Johnson argued, however, that in the meantime the legislature is ignoring the achievement gap.
"If you call only funding a part of it a victory, then you're ignoring it, and you can expect these numbers to repeat themselves over the next few years," Johnson said.