School leaders pitch reform ideas

Published 5:00 am Friday, October 16, 2009

The elimination of state testing is just one of a handful ofeducation reforms supported by superintendents statewide for the2010 legislative session, and the administrators say they haveenough backing in the House and Senate to draft legislation nextyear.

Southwest Mississippi members of the Mississippi Association ofSchool Superintendents met with a handful of regional legislatorsThursday morning at Rusty’s to discuss a legislative agenda that,if approved, would see the end of high-stakes testing, a shortenedschool calendar year and a shift in education emphasis that wouldallow students multiple graduation options – or exit points – morein the spirit of a community college.

Brookhaven’s Dr. Sam Bounds, executive director of MASS, saidthe targeted education reforms were created with feedback fromteachers and school administrators and would improve education,save money and improve teacher pay and retention.

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“I’ve talked to several senators and representatives, and wehave a commitment from several to draft legislation and get thesethings done,” he said.

One of the major priorities MASS is urging in education reformis the establishment of differentiated diplomas, which would allowhigh school students multiple options for graduation beyondacademic diplomas. The shift would create multiple curriculum andcareer training choices for students, like in a collegesetting.

Bounds said the current diploma requirement is forcing collegereadiness on students when not all students are college bound, andthose standards are resulting in high dropout rates. He pointed outthe current system forces students into courses withever-increasing difficulty when many of those classes, like AlgebraII, will never be used in many students’ professional lives.

“I do not believe Mississippi has a dropout problem, I believewe have a push-out problem,” he said. “Mississippi is gettingslammed because we only have one exit point for high schoolseniors. We are forcing our kids to jump a bar that says, ‘You mustbe ready for college.’ We need to be preparing our kids forlife.”

North Pike School District Superintendent Dr. Ben Cox said thegoal of differentiating diplomas would be perceived as loweringacademic standards, but he countered that requiringnon-college-bound students to advance into such rigorous academiccourses has already lowered the standards of the courses, not thestudents.

“If this system stays in place, we will have students who make aD in Algebra and Geometry who are forced to take advanced math,because they can’t go backward,” he said. “When we require everystudent to take Geometry, that lowers our standard for Geometry.Most people don’t need Geometry after school.”

Bounds pointed out that Georgia offers six different diplomas;North Carolina offers one diploma and three “outs,” or graduationalternatives; and Arkansas and Tennessee offer three outs each. Allfour southern states outrank Mississippi nationally ineducation.

Just as having only one diploma limits students’ options, sodoes the requirement of high-stakes testing.

Bounds said the rigorous annual state testing mandated under thefederal No Child Left Behind laws are an inadequate measuring stickfor success in education, and abolishing those and otherstandardized tests would allow teachers more time for traditionalteaching, as well as saving money in education.

Bounds proposed that Mississippi follow the example set byAlabama, which recently discontinued high school graduationexaminations and replaced them with specific end-of-course tests.The Alabama Board of Education also required all high schooljuniors to take the ACT college entrance exam.

“How are you going to fatten the hog if you’re constantlyweighing him?” Bounds alluded. “We’ve got to give our teachers achance to be successful if we’re going to teach these kids.”

Bounds said the preparation and issuance of state tests require23 of the school year’s 180 days, and cost between $16-$20 millionannually.

Without mandatory state testing, the school year could beshortened to 165-170 days, he said, with spare days being halvedbetween professional development and training and extra holidaysfor teachers, which the association hopes will help improve teacherretention. Mississippi still has a problem with losing qualifiedteachers to other states, he said.

Local superintendents who weighed in on the discussion wereunited behind the abolishment of high-stakes testing and ashortened school year.

“It’s not proven that the number of days accomplishes anything -it has no correlation,” said Lincoln County School DistrictSuperintendent Terry Brister, a member of the MASS board ofdirectors.

Franklin County School District Superintendent Dr. Grady Flemingsaid state tests are basically meaningless to those who take them,as the results can’t be applied to the students.

“We spend all this time on tests, but we don’t get the resultsuntil the middle of the summer and then it’s too late to doanything with the data,” he complained.

MASS’ legislative agenda also insists upon other, less-sweepingchanges.

Its top priority is the full funding of the Mississippi AdequateEducation Program, the primary funding method for school districts.The group is also requesting the program be spared from potentialcuts to the state budget.

Bounds said 20 to 27 school districts could face closure if morecuts are enacted.

“MAEP is the lifeblood of education in Mississippi,” he said.”When MAEP is cut, the districts that need it the most are the onesthat suffer the worst.”

MASS also wants to change the wording in mandatory publicationsof tax increase to eliminate confusion when districts are notrequesting increased millage, restoration of funding to the statebuilding and teacher supply funds, recalculating MAEP based onenrollment rather than average daily attendance and providing statefunding for pre-kindergarten programs, pending economicrecovery.