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School sign outside Marshall Elementary in Carroll County, Mississippi, which is desperately in need of funding.
A school in rural Carroll County, Mississippi. More than half of Mississippi’s schools are designated as rural. A new report says these communities need more attention from policymakers and resources to prepare students for success. Credit: Nick Chiles

Mississippi State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said she’s received calls from peers across the country wanting to know how Mississippi made the biggest gains in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state, which has long held the reputation for poor academic scores, should be basking in acclaim. So, why was the largely rural state flagged in a new report as having one of the bleakest outlooks for rural students in the country?

The report, “Why Rural Matters,” published by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, concludes that efforts to improve outcomes for the nearly 50 percent of Mississippi’s students who live in rural areas “should be given the highest priority of rural students anywhere in the nation.” When compared to rural school districts in the majority of states, Mississippi’s districts have a greater percentage of students in poverty, lower spending per pupil and lower high school graduation rates, the report says. The “high priority” status is a repeat designation for Mississippi, which was assigned the same ranking in the 2016-2017 edition of the report.

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The report’s findings may seem confusing when Mississippi is being cited as a case study for boosting student achievement.

“The new governor simply must make rural students a greater priority. It’s really not about politics. It’s about the future of Mississippi and Mississippi families.”

One caveat about data used in the report can partly explain the mixed messages about Mississippi’s educational health: The current edition of the biennial report doesn’t take into account Mississippi’s latest NAEP scores (authors relied on 2017 NAEP results) in its state-by-state comparison. But another reason for the disconnect between the state’s NAEP scores and the report’s gloomy outlook is that the authors’ conclusions don’t hinge on NAEP alone.

While progress made by fourth grade is encouraging, thousands of students in the later grades in Mississippi never had a chance to experience nascent reforms like state-funded pre-K and improved early literacy instruction. The report reinforces concerns that the state has failed to provide resources needed to expose middle and high school students to more challenging coursework and to increase access to Advanced Placement classes that can help prepare students for college.

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By the junior and senior year, for example, only 4 percent of Mississippi’s rural students score high enough on at least one AP exam to earn college credit, compared to the national average of about 10 percent, according to the report. This year, Mississippi ranked next-to-last in average ACT scores for high school seniors. And at the state’s public universities, more than one in four freshmen enrolled in remediation courses in both math and English, according to the most recent statistics. The state’s political leaders have expressed frustration over the cost of catching these students up.

In other words, it’s too simple to tie the reputation of a state’s educational system to one metric, even the NAEP. That doesn’t mean Mississippi should tone down its celebration of progress. Rather, the report’s findings could serve as a call to the state’s legislative leaders to replicate their aggressiveness in pushing reforms like the Literacy Based Promotion Act in efforts that will help older kids.

Alan Richard, a spokesman for the Rural School and Community Trust, said Mississippi’s low standing need not be permanent. (Richard, a national education writer, has contributed to The Hechinger Report.) Investments that would raise the state’s teacher pay and provide more opportunities for dual enrollment and access to Advanced Placement courses, for example, can help change the state’s trajectory.

“The new governor simply must make rural students a greater priority. It’s really not about politics. It’s about the future of Mississippi and Mississippi families,” Richard said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about rural students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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