Mississippi’s Department of Education has a history of puffing up this state’s academic achievements with selective statistical analysis and watered-down standards.

But unlike previously suspect boasts about rising graduation rates or a greater number of A-rated schools, this time the progress is legitimate.

Mississippi’s public school students are gaining on their national peers, albeit in part because these national peers are stuck on mediocrity.

This past week, the National Assessment of Education Progress released the results of the reading and math tests given every other year to a random sampling of fourth graders and eighth graders in every state.

Unlike Mississippi’s own assessments, which can be fudged by setting low passing scores, the NAEP has more stringent standards. It’s why every time the national assessment is given, it provides a sanity check against Mississippi’s grading of state tests. Invariably, the state tests show a significantly higher percentage of students scoring at proficient and above than the NAEP test does.

Nevertheless, Mississippi is one of the few places in the country where students are doing better, according to the latest Nation’s Report Card. On the NAEP assessment, Mississippi posted the largest jump in the country from 2017 to 2019 in fourth grade reading and math, the third largest gain in eighth grade math and the fourth largest gain in eighth grade reading.

Just as impressive is how much Mississippi has closed its proficiency gap with the rest of the country.

Ten years ago, the percent of Mississippi students scoring proficient or above was 10 to 18 points behind in the four categories. Today, the gap has been all but eliminated in fourth grade and about halved in eighth grade.

Before anyone gets too exuberant, though, the gains need to be put in perspective.

Even with the improvement, still more than half of Mississippi fourth graders are not proficient in reading or math, and by eighth grade, three-fourths are not. In other words, Mississippi’s academic achievement, by national norms, has gone during the past decade from being pathetic to merely dismal.

MDE officials attribute the state’s improvement to higher expectations, including a requirement that most third graders pass a standardized reading test before being allowed to advance to fourth grade.

Maybe so. Something is working better.

But the national question is why Mississippi’s improvement is the exception. Why, after marked progress during the 1990s and 2000s, have U.S. students plateaued or even started to slide back?

The answer might be in another report that also came out this past week, showing how firmly young people are glued to their smartphones, tablets and laptops.

The news coverage of the survey conducted by Common Sense Media focused largely on the big increase in online video watching by children, doubling in the past four years from a half-hour a day to an hour.

But I was more struck by the total amount of time kids are spending each day entertaining themselves with screens.

For those ages 8 to 12, it’s nearly five hours; for teenagers, it jumps to almost seven and a half hours — more time than many of them sleep.

The study’s methodology may have inflated the numbers some, given the tendency of younger generations to media multitask. If a kid was on Facebook while watching a two-hour TV show, for example, that would count as four hours of screen time by the researchers.

Even with that caveat, the totals are troubling. There are only so many hours in a day. If kids are spending a fifth to a third of them in screen-time diversions, something else is suffering — most likely exercise and school work.

We are addicting an entire generation of kids on electronic devices that stunt their intellectual development, contribute to their weight problems and possibly shorten their already short attention spans.

It was bad enough when children were watching TV for several hours a day. But smartphones, because of their portability, make the situation worse.

Many parents, themselves hooked to their devices, are giving in earlier and earlier to their kids’ demands for the same. The Common Sense Media survey found that nearly 1 in 5 8-year-olds now have their own smartphone and more than half of 11-year-olds.

Maybe Johnny can’t read, but he sure is getting good with his thumbs.

If these trends continue, it will be very difficult for schools to produce better results.

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

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