The inaugural meeting of the Mississippi Student Testing Task Force started with the good news.

Statewide, third-grade reading test scores are increasing, while the graduation rate has risen from 74.5 percent in 2014 to 83 percent in 2018.

Between 2007 and 2017 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is often referred to as the nation’s report card, Mississippi is second in the nation for gains in fourth-grade reading and fourth for gains in fourth-grade math.

Then came the problems. The graduation rate and NAEP test scores are still behind the national average. Per a report by nonprofit Mississippi First, low-performing districts stop teaching new material after spring break to focus solely on test preparation. In these cases, science and social studies teachers start teaching reading and math for the final quarter.

The task force hopes to address some of these issues.

It was created to examine testing on the state and local school district levels and determine best practices for monitoring student progress. It consists of 31 politicians, school board members, superintendents and teachers, as well as four rising high school seniors. At Tuesday morning’s meeting at Central High School in Jackson, those students provided personal anecdotes about how state testing has restricted their learning.

“We have nine-week tests, mid terms and finals. We still have to study for state tests. Instead of being in class a lot of the time, we’re doing tests,” Mississippi School for the Blind student Jaylen Patrick said. “It took away from a lot of our learning. When we get to the state tests, there’s a lot of things we really don’t know. Because my school, we’re a blind school, we go at a slower rate, so at the end of the year, we’re not at the end of the book. We’re still in the middle.”

To conclude the meeting, one task force member asked the students “do you see the purpose in most of the tests that you take?”

“I have a problem with the stress it puts on teachers because they’re worried about how their students are going to score. It’s like they’re teaching to the tests instead of teaching the curriculum they’re supposed to,” Ocean Springs rising senior Sadie Smith said.” My 10th grade year of English, I took (TE21 benchmark assessments) every single day for a long time, and I did not receive a single graded essay back. I passed the state test, but I feel like there are other things that were missed in the process of passing the state test because going to the computer lab every day and taking a TE21, that wasn’t challenging for me. Why did I do that every day instead of improving my writing skills?”

In the end, the task force resolved to form a committee to create a statewide survey to gain more information about testing practices. It will meet again on July 18.

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