Mississippi students leapfrog past Alaska kids in reading



For decades, Mississippi was synonymous with poor student achievement. Not anymore. In 2013, Mississippi passed legislation and adopted new reading policies which led to it now being one of the top-performing states in the country.

With the release of the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, Mississippi ranked No. 3 in the U.S. for low-income (those kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch) fourth grade reading, and No. 8 for upper/middle-income (kids who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch). Alaska fourth graders have ranked 51st (dead last, behind every state and Washington, D.C.) in both upper/middle-income and the low-income fourth grade reading in since 2017.

Kids who are identified as poor readers by the end of third grade rarely keep pace with their peers in later grades. Much more often, they fall further behind, year after year. These kids are much more likely to drop out of school or develop coping mechanisms that manifest in bad behavior.

But there’s hope for Alaska’s kids. As recently as 2013, Mississippi ranked 45th and 40th, respectively, in reading for low-income and upper/middle-income students. Just six years ago, Mississippi’s fourth grade NAEP scores were pretty similar to those of Alaska. But by 2019, low-income kids in Mississippi posted NAEP scores two-and-a-half school years ahead of low-income kids in Alaska. Upper/middle income Mississippi students were one-and-a-half years ahead.

I’m convinced Alaska kids are just as bright, our teachers are just as dedicated and our parents love their kids just as much as parents in Mississippi. It’s public policy that accounts for the greatest difference in our outcomes. The greatest improvements in reading scores in the U.S. have occurred in states like Mississippi and others that adopted reading legislation pioneered by Florida.

In 2002, Florida adopted a new reading model, a multi-faceted early childhood literacy program that focused on staff training in science-based reading instruction and strongly incentivized identification of and targeted intervention for poor readers, as early as kindergarten.

The Florida reading protocol dramatically reduced the number of kids who were struggling readers in fourth grade and beyond. As an added benefit, Florida saw significant K-12 cost savings through a 56% reduction in special education referrals after a few years. As it turns out, thousands of kids in Florida who were previously labeled “disabled” were actually just kids who had not been properly taught to read.

Some have blamed ethnic minorities in Alaska as the cause of our disappointing test scores. That offensive narrative ignores the fact that white students in Alaska ranked 50th in the US in fourth grade NAEP reading compared to other white fourth graders in 2019. In fact, white eighth graders in Alaska posted NAEP scores that were only about one-half school year ahead of white fourth graders in Washington, D.C. (a Florida model jurisdiction since 2012).

In 2003, Florida was 28th in the U.S. in NAEP low-income fourth grade reading scores. By 2009, Florida was No. 1, a position they’ve maintained for the past 10 years. In Washington, D.C., low-income students were perennially the lowest achieving in the US in fourth grade NAEP reading scores. As recently as 2007, low-income Washington, D.C. kids were a full school year behind low-income Alaskan fourth graders. By 2019, they’d surged one-and-a-half years ahead of Alaska. Upper/middle income fourth graders in Washington, D.C. have gone from 39th in 2011 and have been No. 1 in the nation since 2015.

If there is a more important task for any education system than making sure kids are ready to “read to learn” by age nine, I’m not aware of it. Reading is foundational to success in every other subject a child will be exposed to in their K-12 career.

Being more than a full school year behind Mississippi in fourth grade NAEP reading scores should be a wake-up call for all Alaskans. The good news is that there’s no need to adopt radical or unproven solutions when the Florida reading model has demonstrated time and again to produce the excellent results our kids deserve.

Bob Griffin is the Senior Education Research Fellow for the Alaska Policy Forum and a member of its Board of Directors. He’s a retired USAF fighter pilot and former Chair of the Budget Advisory Commission for the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage School District and a current member of the Alaska State Board of Education and Early Childhood Development.


  1. If Alaska’s teachers concentrated on teaching Alaskan kids the basics (reading, writing & arithmetic, science) instead of indoctrinating them into their leftist ideology, Alaskan kids would score right up there with the rest in America. Instead, Alaska has leftist teachers only interested in making Alaskan kids into political and ideological pawns of the left. It’s a damn shame. During the anti-budget cut frenzy, leftist teachers even used the kids they were supposedly teaching to pressure parents into the leftist political stance, to defy the Governor’s budget reformation. Formative years schooling should not be rooted in leftist dogma. Those years shape students’ learning focus for their entire academic experience. Same with the kids in the bush. They are just as smart as other kids. It’s the teachers that are failing, not the kids. In this case, Alaskans don’t “get what they pay for”.

      • Greg,
        You should do a little research before making a generalized statement regarding why our kids are behind in school. The “Program for International Assessment” does a study of 30+ million 15 year old students world wide, every three years. The most recent study of 32 million 15 year old kids found that the U.S. ranks #30 in the world on math, #23 on science, and #17 on reading. China ranks #1 in all three. Almost every developed country in the world is ahead of America in academic achievement of our youth. There are many reasons tendered on the cause but the general consensus is poor teaching and study habits in the U.S. Chinese schools only reward achievement, skill and aptitude of their students. There, only the deserving, hard working students, from an early age, move on to bigger and better things. Their teachers enforce this ethic or they find another job. Most Asian countries and, even Finland are far ahead of the U.S. in academic achievement. Too much time spent in America indoctrinating students into the leftist arena and ignoring skills and achievements. U.S. students are not learning skills in school that will serve them for their lifetimes. They are learning to be leftists. They get a “passing” grade for being present, not learning. The average college freshman in America reads at a 7th grade level. What do you think the problem is? It’s not dumb kids. We either put a stop to this in America or “pay the piper” down the road. Our kids are being purposely ‘dumbed down’ by their “teachers”.

        • BTW,
          Those world wide testing scores say it all for “education” in America. At least for now. When you consider those scores in America and compare Alaska’s scores with other states in America, with Alaska coming in near last among those, it should tell everyone there is a major problem with education in Alaska. Even though we have the most financially lucrative teaching positions in America, those positions are being inhabited by an academic population with nothing more on their agenda than politicizing the kids for the left. Don’t forget, Chinese students are an average of four grades ahead of same grade American kids in math. America can’t survive as the leader in innovation, invention and technology, with students here being disadvantaged by their “teachers”.

  2. Is it possible to cut education funding and improve the quality of education for students? Well…we’ve definitely proven that throwing more and more money at the education “problem” doesn’t work.

    Maybe instead of taking the easy way out, bowing to education special interest pressure, and pumping more and more cash into the system we should actually find out why kids don’t seem to be performing at an acceptable level.

    Here on Prince of Wales Island we can see the results of just spending more…huge schools in tiny rural communities that have almost as many staff members as students, an emphasis on hiring outside teachers who arrive with bigger than average families to help meet the minimum number of student requirements to retain state funding, and wasteful spending on things like commercial size greenhouses, poultry farm operations and fruit orchards (not to mention subsidized housing for teachers and staff)…just to name a few of the idiotic wastes that are going on.

    Yes, our island boasts four school district owned and operated commercial sized greenhouses costing tens of thousands to operate every year to produce a few thousand dollars worth of lettuce.

    Promoted as a valuable learning opportunity for the kids, somehow, even though they’re most actively used during the summer and staffed by adult employees. The kids get an opportunity to play in the greenhouse dirt in the fall though and that makes for a great photo opportunity for the local “educators” to boast about how wonderful this “learning” opportunity is for the kids.

    Then there are the giant wood fired boilers used to heat these greenhouses during the winter. God only knows how many cords of wood are wasted every year on that.

    And did I mention that our local school district greenhouse cost an estimated $250,000 just to build? Makes the $60,000 per year (as advertised) greenhouse manager position seem like a bargain! Of course with benefits and retirement the true cost of that employee tops $100,000 or more.

    Yes, this is the result of lazy legislators throwing cash at education without actually trying to understand the root of the problem. That extra cash just goes into enhanced wages and benefits or total boondoggles like greenhouses or fruit trees or chickens or whatever and does nothing to help kids learn the basics that they’ll need to compete in the modern workforce.

    Of course we’re all familiar with the seemingly endless school trips for kids to play pointless games against other school kids. Being a great basketball player really opens up wonderful opportunities for the kids!

    Instead of continuing down the same underperforming path why don’t we concentrate on teaching kids the basics…math, science, technology, economics, history, English, etc.

    We can eliminate all of the unnecessary peripherals that seem to have become the primary focus, like playing games, fire all the associated staff, stop building oversized schools (no need for gyms, pools, etc. because we’re paying for the kids to learn not play) and focus on teaching kids the fundamentals.

    And we should fire anyone associated with stupid ideas like school greenhouses and the like.

    How much can it really cost to provide an adequate place to study, some books and other school supplies, a computer and qualified instructors? One thing is certain…it would be a lot less than we’re wasting now.

  3. After reading this by Griffin, it’s time to let go of the goals of these teacher groups and set new ones. The past goals in Alaska does not work. Griffin was a part of the same old scheme. Let go of the goals and the people behind the goals. New plans are inevitable. People as well.

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