Most South Mississippi schools scored significantly better than the state average on the first statewide testing since Mississippi moved to more rigorous college and career readiness standards.
The state as a whole bucked its trend of languishing at the bottom of just about every indicator of educational quality and outpaced almost every other state that has released data for the same English test. Mississippi also held its own against other states in Algebra I.
The Mississippi Department of Education on Thursday released results from two tests -- English II and Algebra I -- by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.
It is the first and final year that the state will use PARCC results. Officials opted to switch to a different testing company for this school year. That means this could be the only time that Mississippi is able to compare its scores so directly to other states in the way it can to 11 other members of the PARCC consortium.
It also means -- because this is the first year for these tests and because the tests were more rigorous than what was previously used -- that the results were expected to be lower than what students and parents were used to seeing.
But officials said the scores were better than expected and would prove useful. Think of it as a reset button, state officials said.
Over several years, the state has raised its expectations for students, trying to bring them to a point where they can compete in higher education and in the workforce with young adults from around the country.
This is the first objective test to see how they're doing, state officials said.
The PARCC tests divide student scores into five levels. Level 4 or 5 indicates the student is on track to be ready for college. Level 3 is still a passing grade in high school but shows there are gaps in the student's knowledge that would need to be filled before college. And Levels 1 and 2 show serious shortcomings in a student's skills in that subject area. Alternate graduation options are available to these students.
Statewide, about 49 percent of students achieved Levels 4 or 5 on the English II test.
On the Coast, Long Beach and Ocean Springs schools saw 73 percent of their students earn one of those scores. At Pass Christian High School, that number was 70 percent.
"I think it reaffirmed the work we've been doing for the past three years and for that I'm delighted," said Bonita Coleman-Potter, the superintendent of Ocean Springs schools. "Teachers have, in a really organized way, been studying the standards, how to implement them in a rigorous way but still support children who haven't been operating at the highest level. We see where work is paying off."
Three schools had between 60 and 70 percent of students earned those scores and two more had between 55 and 60 percent.
Only Moss Point High School scored lower, with 14.8 percent of students earning a 4 or 5.
Moss Point Schools Superintendent Shannon Vincent could not be reached for comment.
Algebra I scores were lower across the board, but the Coast still scored higher than the state average of 27.4 percent of students earning a Level 4 or 5.
Gulfport schools had 67 percent of students earn one of those scores, the second highest number in the state. Six more districts had at least 40 percent of test-takers earn a 4 or 5. In three districts, between 30 and 40 percent of students earned those scores.
Success on the Coast
The success of the Coast can partially be attributed to several districts on the Coast moving to Common Core-based instruction in their classrooms over the course of several years before they were required to do so by the impending tests.
Gulfport began a program to change its curriculum six years ago and implemented an accountability program, used the ACT as another measure of student progress and included dual-enrollment classes. Ocean Springs began the shift three years ago.
Educators in districts including Bay St. Louis-Waveland began implementing a new program that included testing students three times each year to assess gaps in their knowledge.
"Teachers had to switch gears very quickly from the old curriculum to the new standards," said Bay St. Louis-Waveland Superintendent Rebeccca Ladner. "With this percentage, we think their hard work paid off."
All three districts had strong showings in the tests.
"This really establishes a new starting point for measuring college and career readiness," said J.P. Beaudoin, the chief of research and development at the Mississippi Department of Education. "It's the first data we have directly aligned to college and career readiness."
Using the data
Mississippi is changing the tests it administers this school year, shifting from PARCC to the Mississippi Assessment Program - or MAP - which is administered by Questar Assessments Inc.
But officials said the test will continue to assess the same standards as PARCC, which means data gleaned from this year's testing regiment will still be useful.
"Both assessments are measuring the same college and career readiness skills," said Glen East, the Gulfport schools superintendent. "You do not teach to a test, you teach skills. If the test is devised and designed appropriately, it measures what you learned. There should not be a shift in curriculum or lesson plans. You're teaching the same skills, just changing the name of the test."
State officials echoed that sentiment.
"The standards are still the standards," said state superintendent of education Carey Wright. "(Educators) can use that information to better plan instruction and better plan support and enrichment they'll need in coming years."
Wright also said they planned to survey high-performing districts to see what educators there thought accounted for their success. State education officials could then offer that information to lower-performing schools.
PARCC has yet to release any official data comparing the 11 states and Washington DC that took the test. And each state that has released its own scores has used a slightly different format, making comparing the data an inexact proposition.
But Mississippi appears to be near the top of that group in English II, behind only Ohio, based on the states' own releases.
The state's math scores are more middle of the road but are still comparable to the other test-takers.
"We've done well, let's put it that way," Wright said. "This shows students are just as capable at performing at high levels as any others in the nation."
The next round of PARCC scores -- the scores for 3rd through 8th graders -- will be released next month.