Two Analyses of Mississippi Achievement Data Produce Significant Findings for Policymakers

Last Updated: April 30, 2010

This article appeared in the April 2010 Rural Policy Matters.
  • Smaller school districts reduce the impact of poverty on student achievement
  • So-called higher achieving districts do no better than low-achieving districts at closing achievement gaps for Mississippi’s low-income, African American, or disabled students

The state of Mississippi is considering closing many of its school districts (see RPM, January 2010). Criteria for closure are likely to include some combination of factors including enrollment and district performance ratings. The Rural Trust, on behalf of Southern Echo, has analyzed student test data gathered as part of the state’s accountability system to explore the relationships between achievement, poverty, and other factors. The results are relevant to public policy choices in many other states as well as in Mississippi.

Achievement, Poverty, and District Size

Low-income students who attend school in one of Mississippi’s smaller school districts are less likely to fall behind their more affluent peers, on average, than low-income students in larger districts. In other words, the state’s smaller districts reduce the impact of poverty on student achievement. That’s important information in one of the nation’s poorest states because poverty is more threatening to academic achievement than any other factor.

Rural Trust researcher Jerry Johnson, Ph.D., analyzed school data collected through the Mississippi Department of Education to determine the interaction of poverty, school district size, and student achievement. He found that poverty explains 78.5% of the variance in performance outcomes (using the state’s Quality of Distribution Index, or QDI) in larger districts compared to 62.4% of test score variance in smaller districts. That’s a substantial difference on an important achievement outcome.

In fact, poverty had less influence in smaller districts than in larger districts on all 18 assessments required by the state. These assessments include Language Arts and Math tests for students in grades three through eight and high school tests in algebra, biology, US history, and English.

Poverty’s Power Rating in Smaller versus Larger Mississippi School Districts

Figure 1. Poverty’s Power Rating in Smaller versus Larger Mississippi School Districts (based on the state’s 2008–09 Quality Distribute Index) (click on graph for larger image).

A large and consistent body of research suggests that the influence of school and district size on student performance is indirect. Enrollment size does not directly impact performance one way or the other. Instead, size disrupts the relationship between academic achievement and other characteristics, including poverty.

Studies conducted in more than 15 states have found similar results: smaller district size is associated with weakening the negative influence of poverty while larger district size is associated with increasing the negative influence of poverty.

The Mississippi analysis divided the state’s 149 regular school districts in half according to size. Half the districts (the smaller districts) have enrollments under 2,272 students; the other half (the larger districts) enroll 2,272 students or more.

The study found that, in Mississippi, larger districts tend to have higher student test scores. But that does not mean that larger districts improve achievement. Rather, the analysis found that larger districts have lower percentages of students living in poverty.

Achievement, Student Learning Challenges, and District Ratings

In a separate analysis, Johnson and researcher Shane Shope, explored the question of whether achievement gaps linked to race, poverty, or disability exist in the state’s new district accountability assessment categories.

The system assigns districts to one of six performance categories based on student test scores: Failing, At Risk of Failing, Academic Watch, Successful, High Performing, and Star.

The analysis utilized the Mississippi Curriculum Test 2 for grades three through eight in Language Arts and Math. To determine whether achievement gaps existed in each of the six categories, the analysis made comparisons between (1) White and African American students, (2) Economically Disadvantaged and Non-Economically Disadvantaged students, and (3) Disabled and Non-Disabled students.

The resulting calculations provide a measure of the size of the achievement gap in each of the three student categories for each of the six district performance categories.

Results. Data for language arts results for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders found that “Failing” districts actually exhibit less of an achievement gap between White and African-American students than “Star” districts. Similar patterns held at 6th, 7th, and 8th grade level and for math results at 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th 7th, and 8th grades. The data suggest that “lower” rated districts may actually do a better job of serving students from historically underserved groups than higher rated districts.

Data for low-income and disabled students showed no significant patterns linking achievement gap and districts with different ratings. The overall conclusion of the analysis is that no districts have been entirely successful at closing achievement gaps in Mississippi schools, even those touted as being the state’s best.

The results are important for a variety of reasons. High performance rankings in Mississippi’s districts tend to describe the demographics of the students and do not reveal how well those districts are educating students with learning challenges. Although no districts are successful in meeting the needs of historically underserved student groups, low-performing districts are doing a better job than higher-performance districts in several circumstances. Closing “low-performing” districts and sending students to “higher performing” districts will not likely improve educational outcomes for those students.


Together these two studies suggest that Mississippi should find more effective ways to improve achievement and close achievement gaps than closing districts. Consolidation will not move students into new districts that are more effective than their current districts at teaching students with learning challenges.

In a state where so many children and young people struggle with the challenges of deep and widespread poverty, closing districts will only add to the hardships students face. Further, eliminating districts will limit the opportunities local residents have to participate in the governance of their schools. And, eliminating schools almost always leads in short order to the closing of schools. And that’s yet another level of hardship for poor rural students and their families. Other research has not found financial savings associated with district consolidation.

Further, Mississippi’s school ranking system does not provide an accurate guide to how well districts are educating the most at-risk students. Indeed, many “failing” and “at risk of failing” districts are in that position primarily because they serve student populations with higher proportions of students of color, or who are low-wealth, or who have a disability.

Read more from the April 2010 Rural Policy Matters.