Graduation rates reflect lower test standards

By TIM KALICH,

After Tate Reeves’ luncheon presentation last week in Greenwood, several of those in attendance told me that it was obvious the lieutenant governor was trying to avoid my question.

I thought so, too.

At the end of delivering a talk I suspect Reeves has already made a dozen times or so, the Republican left about 10 minutes for questions from the audience.

I was sitting on the front row, and my hand went up along with several others. He called on two people to my right, then one to my left, then looked at me and said time was up but that he would take my question afterward.

“Well, I think I’d like the audience to hear the question, if you don’t mind,” I responded.

Reeves agreed. He didn’t know, of course, what I might ask, but he might have figured it wasn’t going to be a softball question.

In recent weeks, I had read accounts of Reeves’ speeches in which he claimed that Mississippi, during his time as lieutenant governor, has made significant educational progress, citing as evidence the state’s double-digit rise in graduation rates and the high passage rate on the GOP-pioneered “third-grade gate” reading test.

He did so again here, reciting those same flattering numbers and saying, “All we’ve done over the last six or seven years ... is raise the level of expectations.”

The facts, I told him, would suggest otherwise.

Six years ago, Mississippi high schoolers had to pass four subject-area tests in order to graduate. Not any longer. The state Board of Education has added several other routes to graduation that de-emphasize those tests.

Because of that change, it’s impossible to tell whether Mississippi’s graduation rate has really improved, or whether the jump is because it’s easier now to get a diploma than it was before. But we do know this, thanks to the digging of Charlie Smith, a former Commonwealth reporter who now is the editor and publisher of a sister paper in Columbia: Nineteen percent of the graduating class of 2017 flunked at least one of those four tests and under the old rules might not have graduated.

As for third-grade gate, the 2013 law that’s supposed to ensure every third-grader is reading at grade level before being promoted to fourth grade, it’s a farce, too.

Presently to cross over it, students have to score a two on a scale of one to five. Level 2 is translated as “basic,” or below passing. The students who score two are struggling readers and are only “at grade level” if you have a generous definition of what grade level means.

In a couple of years, the gate is supposed to be raised to Level 3, or a true passing score. If past is prologue, either that will never happen, or what it means to score at Level 3 will be watered down.

 

Reeves, while conceding some of my points, denied that standards have been lowered. I didn’t expect him to say otherwise.

He has struck an unholy bargain with the state education bureaucrats, as have Gov. Phil Bryant and other self-proclaimed education reformers in the Republican Party.

It goes something like this: “We’ll devise ways to claim we are holding you accountable,” say Reeves et al, “and you devise ways to get around it. We’ll then both pat ourselves on the back about how much progress we’re making.”

This is more than just the typical spin that politicians put on their selective use of statistics. This is an intentional deception that Reeves hopes will propel him to the Governor’s Mansion in a couple of years.

That’s not all that Reeves said last week that could be picked apart.

He claimed the across-the-board corporate tax cuts that Republican majorities have pushed through the Legislature in recent years are mostly beneficial to workers: namely, that the less the state extracts from their employer in taxes, the more that workers will see in benefits and wages.

By that same logic, the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives that recent legislators and governors have given to foreign-owned auto and tire manufacturers translate into higher wages and benefits these companies can pay. This gives them a competitive advantage for skilled labor over all the other companies in this state that don’t get the preferential treatment. It’s an economic development strategy that creates jobs in one spot and kills them in another.

It’s one reason why Mississippi’s economy, as was reported two days after Reeves’ rosy talk in Greenwood, has grown by less than two percent since the Great Recession while the economy grew by 14 percent nationally and by more than eight percent in our four neighboring states.

 One other piece of “good news” Reeves shared proved to be a fiction. The state had been claiming that tax collections, which have been sluggish for the past several years, were finally showing a rebound. From July to September, the numbers were up 3.5 percent from the same time last year. Turns out, according to the state economist, that all of this “growth” was due to bookkeeping anomalies. In a true apples-to-apples comparison, tax collections are actually down, not up, so far this fiscal year.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

 

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