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

The wake-up call came in 2007. That’s when Mississippi’s leaders realized the tests the state’s students took to measure proficiency were too easy compared to national exams. Most students rated “proficient” by the state were anything but. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report released that year highlighted a 71-point gap between the percentage of fourth-grade students who scored proficient or above on the state’s reading exam in 2005 and those who scored proficient or above on the 2005 NAEP reading exam.

Since 2007, Mississippi has attempted to raise the bar for students; as a result, the state has succeeded in posting some of the greatest score increases on the NAEP, according to a new report by the National Assessment Governing Board, which examines the steps Mississippi took to go from flailing to becoming a leader in NAEP score improvement. Between 2005 and 2017, Mississippi increased its scores in all grade and subject areas of the national exam. In every grade and subject area, the score increase was greater than the national average increase. That 71 percent gap in reading? It’s down to just 4 points.

The National Assessment Governing Board report points to several key strategies that have led to these achievements:

1. Mississippi created new academic standards that are more rigorous and better-aligned to national expectations for students. State officials say there were gaps in previous academic standards when compared to testing expectations. “There were some things addressed in NAEP’s fourth-grade assessments that we weren’t teaching until the fifth or sixth grade,” said Nathan Oakley, Mississippi’s chief academic officer, in the report.

2. Mississippi wrote a new state assessment based on the NAEP test to make sure the state is testing the same concepts that students are expected to know on the national exam.

3. The state has focused on literacy. Officials say the Literacy-Based Promotion Act of 2013 has been vital to making sure students are reading at or above grade level. The act also provides resources to enable some schools to retain literacy coaches and to help schools give literacy training to K-3 teachers and principals.

Despite the improvement, state officials said there is still room for scores to grow. In 2017, Mississippi’s average scale scores for fourth- and eighth-grade reading, mathematics, science and writing were still below the national average.

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

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