Report suggests some schools overuse test prep

Published 9:17 pm Monday, April 9, 2018

A new report on testing in Mississippi’s public schools suggests that low-performing schools may spend so much time getting ready for high-stakes state tests that teachers don’t teach new material for a significant portion of the school year.

The testing report was released last week by Mississippi First, a group which researches education in Mississippi and pushes for changes. The report was released just after Mississippi lawmakers adjourned their 2018 session, which saw a reprise of the debate over how the state tests high school students.

Mississippi First, though, seems to largely back up the Mississippi Department of Education’s position that it’s not state tests themselves to blame for any over-testing. Instead, the report finds that testing practices and district tests may be the problem.

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“We want to be very clear: we would not recommend eliminating annual state testing even if the federal government did not require it,” the report says.

The authors of the study acknowledge it has clear limits. It examined the tests that four districts, not named in the study, gave in the 2014-2015 school year. Thus, the authors warn that they have far from a comprehensive picture of what testing looks like in Mississippi’s 140-plus local school districts.

The study raises some key issues, though. All the districts took the same state tests, but the districts mandated widely varying numbers of their own tests to be given across all classrooms. One D-rated district gave 22 tests lasting at least 50 hours for a fifth grader. A smaller A-rated district with a more affluent student population mandated that, beyond state tests, its fifth graders take only six tests lasting at least six hours.

For state tests and some district tests, though, schools go on “lockdown.” Everyone in the whole school has to wait until the last student finishes the test, meaning most students end up sitting at their desks long after they’re finished, possibly reading a book. Typically, a school does nothing else but test on a state testing day, and at least one of the districts studied tended to treat some of its district-mandated testing the same way.

The report also notes that the two D-rated districts studied appear to use most of the final nine weeks of the year drilling for state tests, meaning teaching of new material is confined to only three quarters of the school year. The report can’t state how widespread that practice is, but says that “several education leaders we spoke with shared anecdotes that indicate this practice may be very common in low-performing school districts.”

“Shortening the instructional year is extremely counterproductive because students are unlikely to grasp all of the new concepts in the time allotted, and even the best students are unlikely to understand the new concepts at any depth,” the authors write. “Furthermore, students who struggle academically need more instructional time, not less.”

The report emphasizes that testing should be a servant to broader objectives and not a master of the school.

For state tests, Mississippi First recommends that the state and districts do more to make data useful to teachers as they plan instruction in the following year, including getting scores reported more quickly. The report suggests that districts should only give a local test if they plan to use the data and should publish yearly tables of all standardized tests. Mississippi First recommends the state keep an eye on the length of each test, help districts make sure the tests they give are sensibly designed to achieve current objectives, and publish model guides to show how instruction should be paced throughout the year.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at jeffamy.