Education

Teaching for the test could be a problem in Mississippi. Is this plan the solution?

The Ocean Springs School District has received a grant to hire up to 40 teacher residents in a state program to help address a shortage of teachers. Here, students at Ocean Springs Elementary School work on reading assignment on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. The Ocean Springs School District has been one of the top-scoring districts in the state and the Coast.
The Ocean Springs School District has received a grant to hire up to 40 teacher residents in a state program to help address a shortage of teachers. Here, students at Ocean Springs Elementary School work on reading assignment on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. The Ocean Springs School District has been one of the top-scoring districts in the state and the Coast. Sun Herald file

Are Mississippi public school students spending too much tasking standardized tests? Not exactly, according to a report from Mississippi First. And the report has gotten the attention of the state's education leader.

The education advocacy group recently released the findings from a study on state testing. The report, based on data created between 2014-15, claims public school students spend about eight hours, or less than one percent of 180-day school year, taking state tests.

Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, said Monday in a news release that the Mississippi Department of Education is creating the Mississippi Student Testing Task Force to examine state and district testing. The task force is the first of its kind for the MDE, according to the news release.

“We have heard concerns from parents, lawmakers and educators about the amount of testing on the state and district levels and the time spent on test preparation in schools," Wright said in the news release. "We believe that through the work of the task force we can come up with reasonable recommendations that will address these concerns while ensuring accountability among schools and districts to prepare our students for their next step, whether it’s the next grade, the workforce, military or college."

The task force will include educators, legislators, parents, school board members and students from across the state. Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and House Education Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, are part of the task force.

The task force expects to report on its findings and make recommendations by the end of the year.

According to Mississippi First, an the education advocacy group, the eight hours of testing does not include time preparing for and discussing standardized tests.

For the report, Mississippi First said it studied four types of school districts — small, lower-poverty district with 1:1 technology, a small, high-poverty district without 1:1 technology, a mid-sized, (about 5,000 students) high-poverty district with partial 1:1 technology and a mid-sized,lower-poverty district without 1:1 technology.

The districts studied were not named, but a culmination of the districts sampled were called Hillside, Overton, Sunset and Mannequin, respectively.

Students in lower-performing districts spent more time preparing for tests and taking standardized tests than students in higher-performing districts, the report showed.

Coast schools

This means that on the Coast, students in the Moss Point School District may spend more time preparing for tests and taking them than students in the Ocean Springs School District. One of the standardized state tests currently used in the state is Mississippi Academic Assessment Program, which measures performance in English Language Arts and mathematics in grades 3-8, as well as in English II and Algebra I in high school.

For the 2016-17 school year, the OSSD had the highest percentage of students who scored passing grades with 84.71 percent of students having at least a general mastery of the knowledge and skills required for success in the course at grade level.

In the MAAP system of accountability, a school is rated an "A" district if it scores 738 or above. Districts scoring 470-452 receive a "D" grade and anything below 452 is considered an "F" or failing school district.

Moss Point received the lowest scores in the state.

The Pass Christian School District received a "B" rating in the fall of 2017, dropping from an "A" by a few points. PCSD superintendent Carla Evers said her district "assesses" students three times a year. "We assess our K-8 students three times per year (pre-mid-post) via a growth monitoring system," she said. "This provides our teachers and administrators with actionable data that can be used to support each student’s instructional needs. Whereas practice has its place, we can not practice our way to high performance. High performance happens when students are engaged in a rigorous and relevant learning process."

The suggestions

In the report, Mississippi First suggests schools cut back on the amount of prep time spent on testing. Other suggestions include allowing teachers to create their own standardized tests and create a task force to examine instructional time in the districts.

Evers said she sees no need for testing reform, at least in her district.

"The assessments have undergone a recent overhaul with the move from PARCC to MAAP," she said. "We are now in a period of stabilization, which is important to our ability to use the data as an achievement indicator."

She also said standardized testing is a necessary tool for measuring success in modern education. "We recognize the importance of assessing," she said. "There are not many professions that exist where passing a test is not a threshold for entry into said profession. Further, until society de-emphasizes standardized testing in schools, i.e., it is not headline news, I fear not much will change.

"Teachers would love to be able to teach, and let the test happen without fear of heavy scrutiny."

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