JACKSON Mississippi’s education leader told lawmakers Wednesday that she still wants to hold third grade reading tests and high school assessments amid the pandemic this year – but the scores should not be used to penalize students.

“I do believe this needs to be a year of grace for our schools, for our teachers and for our children,” State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told the Senate Education Committee.

She said the tests still must occur in order to measure student progress and because they remain – for now – required by the U.S. Department of Education. But students who may have received an uneven education this year related to the coronavirus shouldn’t pay for that, Wright said.

In typical years, the third grade test is used to hold low-scoring students back, and the high school tests can prevent them from graduating. Wright suggested professional development will be needed for fourth grade teachers so they can help bring students who may have otherwise been held back up to speed.

“We need to know the state of education in Mississippi,” Wright said of the importance of holding the tests this year. “It’s been two years now; this will be two full years without a statewide assessment. We need to get a lay of the land.”

The testing changes would need to be approved by the Legislature or through an order by Gov. Tate Reeves.

In 2019, as students faced a tougher grading standard on the “third grade gate” for the first time, around 1 in 4 students failed the first round of the exam.

The Mississippi Department of Education also announced Wednesday that it’s recommending all districts and schools keep the same letter grade they received in the 2018-2019 school year. The grades are based in part on how well students perform on language arts and math assessments.

Wright also talked with lawmakers about a $725 million second round of federal coronavirus stimulus money earmarked for education that is expected to land in state coffers within a week. The initial round of virus funds needed to be spent rapidly, by the end of 2020, but the latest chunk of cash for K-12 is allowed to be spent by districts over a longer period of time – through 2023, Wright said.

“I think we would want some input on how that money is disbursed,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, of lawmakers.

But Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, said it remains unclear whether lawmakers will be able to direct some of that spending, or whether it will flow straight to MDE and then on to school districts.

Wright said one thing was clear: The first round of federal stimulus cash from the CARES Act last year has already helped educators and students.

Wright said most school districts benefited from a program, set up by the Legislature, that allowed them to buy internet hotspots and equipment, or even build new cell towers. And all but two districts had used the money allocated by lawmakers to buy new laptops and tablets – 390,000 total around the state, delivered by the start of December – to help students learn remotely.

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com

Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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