• 66°

What’s a test for? Task force may have to answer

If Mississippi’s going to examine how much the state and school districts are testing students, leaders might do well to first question what those tests are supposed to accomplish.

Should state tests measure how a school or district is doing corporately, how a student is doing, or both?

Because long-simmering efforts to kill the tests that Mississippi gives high school students to measure achievement in algebra, English, biology and U.S. history could wipe away the legacy of an earlier movement aimed at making sure students had a basic amount of knowledge before they could graduate from high school.

All that could be on the table when a new testing task force that Mississippi state Superintendent Carey Wright announced last week begins to meet. Wright said the task force is supposed to figure out how many and what kinds of tests students are taking at the state and district levels, recommend ways to “streamline” testing and recommend best practices.

“”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 a statement .

The task force was announced shortly after a report by education advocacy group Mississippi First found that students in some 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.

Testing is disruptive, especially in schools that give lots of district tests that simulate the state tests, and in districts that don’t have enough computers with internet access to give one to every student. For days on end, a school can be on “lockdown,” with students stuck in a single classroom with little else to do after finishing their tests.

The subject area tests began in 2003, replacing an older exit exam called the Functional Literacy Exam, which had been given since the 1980s. State Rep. Tom Miles, a Forest Democrat who passed that earlier exam before he graduated from high school in 1998, has taken up the torch for eliminating the high school tests. Miles says he wants high school students to only have to take the ACT college test in high school. Opponents have voiced concern that the ACT wouldn’t measure what Mississippi students are required to learn, especially in history and biology. And they also object to the idea of setting a “passing” ACT score, especially because any passing score would probably be below the 21 that the ACT considers as college-ready. Mississippi’s 2017 graduates, public and private, had an average composite score of 18.6 on the college entrance exam.

But parts of that argument misstate Miles’ position. He said Friday that he doesn’t believe there should be a cutoff score.

“I don’t think they should have to pass a standardized test to graduate from high school,” Miles said.

It’s already possible for students to graduate without passing all four of the tests and about 20 percent do, according to state figures. To block lawmakers from killing the tests entirely, the state Board of Education voted in 2014 to allow students to graduate if they could show alternate measures of proficiency. They include scores of 17 or better on parts of the ACT college test, grades of C or better in a college course the student took while in high school, or certain scores on military entrance or career technical exams, combined with a career certification.

But although there are ways around the tests, some still get stopped at that roadblock. The task force could choose to let them through anyway.

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