Room to improve
State's trial run on tests
provides important data
The secondary school subject area tests administered last spring to Mississippi students don't officially count, but they do show the need for improvement.
The tests are part of a new educational accountability and accreditation system the state is phasing in, and beginning in the 2002-03 school year, students in certain subject areas must pass the tests to move on or graduate - even if they've already passed the regular coursework and exams.
The bad news coming out of the trial-run tests last spring, results of which were released last week, is that in many districts and schools, the average scores in one or more subjects fell below the passing level. That means a substantial number of students wouldn't have gotten the green light to pass or graduate.
Under the new accountability system, students would have the opportunity to take the tests again, but the scores suggest many schools, teachers and students have their worked cut out for them.
These are not the typical standardized tests. They are exams developed with input from state educators that measure a student's knowledge of specific course content and objectives. The subject areas include Algebra I, Biology, American History and English II, all required courses. The standard for passing is not stringent; the grading scale is 100 to 500 with 300 the cutoff for passing.
The tests are designed to ensure at least a rudimentary knowledge of the subject matter. The English component includes two separate writing exercises, graded on a 1 to 5 scale, and in a number of Northeast Mississippi schools, the narrative writing average score was below the passing mark of 2.
The good -or at least better - news is that the experience of other states has been that when students and teachers know the tests count, the scores go up. Twenty Northeast Mississippi schools had average scores above passing in all areas, and some were considerably above the state average.
Yet even those districts that historically score well, including Tupelo, showed plenty of room for improvement. Expectations must be high for all students, and higher than merely beating the state average in those districts that have achieved Level 5 status, the highest level of accreditation, in the past.
Educators say that the most important figure when these tests are officially a part of the accreditation system will not be the average school or district score but the number of students who passed and the number who failed. That's true up to a point; obviously a high failure rate would be cause for concern. Yet the average scores will say something about how well a school is teaching subject matter, even with all the other variables that affect test scores.
Test results are not the only indicator of the quality of education in a school or school district. But they are the most tangible means of measuring academic performance, and the best guide to shoring up weaknesses and building on strengths.
This trial run gives school administrators and teachers the opportunity to assess what those weaknesses are and to work on correcting them.