Despite mandating that accountability results from last year will be carried over for this school year, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) still plans to administer this year’s round of standardized tests.
The state starts testing public school children in pre-K and the regime continues through high school. Pre-K and kindergarten children receive pre- and post-school year tests.
The Mississippi Academic Assessment Program assesses student performance in third grade through eighth grade in English and mathematics, with science tests given in fifth and eighth grades.
High school students take end-of-course exams in Algebra I, English, biology and U.S. history, while the ACT test (which measures college readiness with four benchmarks: English, mathematics, reading and science) is administered to all juniors.
Mississippi is one of 15 states that administer the ACT to all its high school students. Mississippi seniors scored an average of 18.1 in 2019, down slightly from 18.3 in 2018. The average composite scores for Mississippi juniors who took the test declined from 17.8 in 2018 to 17.6 in 2019, while the percentage of juniors who met the minimum for all four benchmarks (English, mathematics, reading and science) remained at 9 percent.
The Madison County School District plans to follow MDE directives on testing, according to Gene Wright, communications director for the system.
“In Madison County Schools, our approach to state accountability and student testing remains consistent this year as in years past,” Smith said. “We will continue to teach to course standards and objectives via both in-person learning and virtual learning Certainly if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that circumstances may change; if MDE were to make any kind of changes to current policies, we would of course follow those changes and guidance.”
State Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, has been a long-time critic of the state’s testing regime. He says carrying over last year’s accountability grades proves that the state could remain compliant with federal guidelines by just administering the ACT test and junking the post-course assessments that all high school students must take.
He’s filed numerous bills over the years that would’ve done exactly that, but none have passed out of committee. Wisconsin uses the ACT test for its high school exit exam in lieu of individual end-of-course tests to its high schoolers.
“If we just cut back to the ACT test, we could save a lot of money that could be put back into the classroom,” Miles said. “It’s a really simple solution to this.”
Mississippi is one of 13 states that mandate exit exams, along with Louisiana, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, Indiana, Ohio and Washington.
The money paid to these vendors is for administering these tests considerable. In 2015, the state Board of Education approved a 10-year, $110.9 million contract to Minnesota-based Questar Assessment to administer tests for MAAP for English and math for grades 3 through 8 and end course tests for algebra and English.
Questar spent $336,202 from 2015 to 2019 lobbying the Legislature.
The contract for Questar was renewed on May 21 by the state Board of Education and taxpayers have paid $44.8 million to the company for services so far. Because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the company only received $170,157 for services in fiscal 2020 (which ended June 30) rather than the $711,577 received last year.
The contract hasn’t been without controversy, after a data breach in 2016 exposed the personal information of 663 students in Tupelo and Jefferson County. New York had a similar issue with 52 students that same year. The MDE demanded the company reset passwords, receive an outside audit into its cybersecurity practices and offer a corrective plan. Questar didn’t confirm the breach had happened until 2018.
Utah and Tennessee dropped Questar in 2019 and found new vendors.
MDE director of public relations Jean Cook said the state didn’t pay any vendors for unperformed work when statewide tests were not administered because of the emergency declaration issued by Gov. Tate Reeves. She also said that testing vendors will be paid once they provide services related to this year’s testing.
Questar isn’t the only testing vendor receiving taxpayer funds.
The Data Recognition Corporation received a four-year, $8.8 million contract to administer the fifth and eight grade science tests and the end-of-course tests for biology and U.S. history.