Mississippi Seeks Parity, But Academic Achievement Gaps Grow

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi has an ambitious plan to close academic achievement gaps among student groups by 2025, but last year's results won't help – most gaps grew wider.

Black and Hispanic students fell further behind their white counterparts in proficiency in English language arts and math. Poor students fell further behind those who aren't poor. And students with disabilities fell further behind students without disabilities.

It's the second year the state has produced a report on achievement divides, part a federal push to make sure high scores among some students don't disguise problems among disadvantaged groups. State Superintendent Carey Wright, in a Board of Education meeting earlier this month when the data was released, urged districts to use the data to target areas for improvement.

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"Behind every data point, there's a face," Wright said.

Proficiency levels for all those groups actually rose on the English and math tests, as was expected in the second year of the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program tests. That's at least in part because students and teachers both become more familiar with what a test covers and how it's structured.

But the share of white students scoring as proficient on math tests, for example, jumped from 45.8 percent to 52.7 percent, while the share of African-American students reaching that benchmark rose from 17.9 percent to 23.5 percent. That meant, even at the higher score levels, the distance between white student proficiency levels and black student proficiency levels grew, a pattern that held true for most other measures.

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Gaps did narrow between multiracial and white students. And students with limited English skills narrowed the distance between them and native English speakers on math tests, although not on English language arts tests.

State testing and performance director Walt Drane said state officials aren't sure why the gaps widened. Data Analytics Director Anna Furniss suggested it could be because minority groups are more transient, making it harder for school officials to track them.

Among Mississippi districts, the achievement gap tends to be most severe in districts that serve a diverse mix of students, with some very high achievers. Even students on the wrong end of a divide in higher-performing districts can be scoring higher than students in lower-performing districts. On the other hand, gaps are narrow in some districts because all students are performing poorly.

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Much attention has been focused on the issue in Oxford, which is not only the top scoring school district in the state, but a district with some of the biggest chasms between performance by rich and poor students and black and white students. Some of Oxford's gaps got narrower last year, and Superintendent Brian Harvey said the district worked hard to make that progress. He said Oxford saw more parity in ACT college test scores and advanced coursework as well.

"We're still not proud of where we are, but we're proud we're moving in the right direction," Harvey said.

-By Jeff Amy, Associated Pres

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