Gazebo Gazette

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) held up its sustained record of improved student achievement over the past six years – particularly the state’s record-low dropout rate – in response to the Office of the State Auditor’s (OSA) performance audit for the MDE Office of Dropout Prevention. State law established the office in 2006, though no specific state funds are targeted for the office.

The OSA report made no mention of the MDE’s broader, updated strategy to improve student achievement and how it successfully raised student outcomes.

“This audit completely ignores the progress made in performance by schools, districts, and students across Mississippi,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “This project was described as a performance audit, but there are no performance metrics included in the report.”

The OSA audit cited the MDE for not adhering to the 2006 law because it no longer operates a stand-alone dropout prevention office, disregarding the fact that the MDE’s Office of Secondary Education leads agency-wide dropout prevention efforts. Those efforts are embedded throughout the Mississippi State Board of Education (SBE) Strategic Plan.

Since the Strategic Plan was adopted in 2014, the MDE has spearheaded initiatives that pushed the state’s graduation rate to an all-time high of 85%, up from 74.5% in 2014; reduced the state’s dropout rate to an historic low of 9.7%, a decrease from 13.9% in 2014; and significantly improved student achievement from pre-K through grade 12.

The audit also erroneously cites the MDE for using inapplicable graduation rate data when reporting to SBE and the public. The MDE calculates the four-year graduation rate in accordance with the definition established in Section 8101(25) of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“Given the tremendous progress Mississippi students, teachers and schools have made over the past six years, it is disheartening to read a report that focuses on outdated procedures that have not been effective,” Wright said. “The State Board of Education Strategic Plan has modernized the state’s approach to education, which has resulted in historic and sustained student achievement across Mississippi. The nation now considers Mississippi a leader in education because our students are making faster progress than nearly every other state.”

Read the MDE’s complete response to the OSA audit.

Additionally, Mississippi experienced the greatest improvement in education, ranking 39th in the country, a substantial upturn from the previous ranking of 44 in 2019, according to new data released in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS COUNT® 2020 Data Book.

Gains in high school graduation and 4th grade literacy contributed to the rise in achievement. High school students are also more likely to graduate on time.

Fourth graders not proficient in reading improved from the previous year, dropping from 73 percent to 68 percent.

Linda Southward, director of the Children’s Foundation of Mississippi, notes that “for Mississippi to continue to make improvements, we must first assure that children and families have the services needed now and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

She further notes that it is “more critical than ever for each child to have computers and access to broadband internet connectivity — this is one example of how Mississippi can build upon the successes in education, along with quality early care and education and more Pre-K classrooms.”  Southward stated that “Mississippians are overwhelmingly supportive of giving our children a strong start, but we know it will take everyone working together, across systems and agencies along with public-private partnerships to make positive differences for Mississippi’s children and their families.”

Mississippi ranked 49th nationally for overall child well-being, according to the new report that uses data from health, education, economic well-being and family and community.

This is Mississippi’s first decrease in the overall ranking over the past three years. The report is based on the latest data available for the indicators used, all prior to 2020.  This data does not reflect current conditions amidst the COVID-19 crisis. The Casey Foundation has plans to issue a special report in December focused on data from the pandemic.

The 2020 KIDS COUNT® Data Book is available at www.aecf.org. Additional information is available at www.aecf.org/databook, which also contains the most recent national, state and local data on hundreds of indicators of child well-being. Journalists interested in creating maps, graphs and rankings in stories about the Data Book can use the KIDS COUNT Data Center at datacenter.kidscount.org.