Passing the buck on public school test scores

By TIM KALICH,

Mississippi gets its scores back on the statewide tests of public school students. The results are not all that was hoped for, so the standards get lowered to produce the desired outcome.

You go through this exercise enough and you start asking, What’s the point? If all the state ends up doing is finessing the numbers every year to produce an outcome with which everyone can live, why go through the trouble of giving the tests?

This coming week, the state Board of Education is expected to decide whether to accept a recommendation — apparently being pushed by the Mississippi Department of Education — to reset the scoring scale so that there would be fewer F-rated high schools and more A-rated ones.

It would be the third straight year that, after the test results came back, the grading scale was adjusted for some or all schools to present a more flattering picture of their performance.

Again, MDE is using the excuse that the reset is needed because of the transition to a different test supplier a couple of years ago. Except for a relatively small sampling of students, that’s really not a factor. The only students whose scores are being compared from the old test to the new one are those smart kids who take the Algebra I test in eighth grade, a year earlier than normal. For everyone else, it’s comparing apples and apples when the state calculates how much improvement there has been from one year to the next.

What really appears to be happening is that when MDE applied the tougher grading standard, the results at the high-school level were alarming. Instead of 50 A-rated high schools, there would be only seven. Instead of only four high schools getting F’s, there would be 60.

Interestingly, it is only the high schools — not the lower grades or the school districts — for whom the curve supposedly needs to be changed. The elementary and middle schools did well enough that no one is arguing for them to get any grade relief.

Instead of adjusting the grading curve, maybe the Board of Education should be asking why the upper grades did not perform as well as the lower grades. There’s reason, though, to doubt that’s going to happen.

Mississippi’s pattern — as has been the case in most states that talk tough about school accountability until they learn how little many of their students are learning — is to relax standards when they pinch too tightly. Not only are the schools and the education bureaucrats guilty of this, so are the politicians who demanded the tougher standards in the first place.

 

In the past year, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have touted the gains in the state’s graduation rate and the high passage rate of third-graders on the reading test required of them in order to be promoted to fourth grade.

What the Republican officeholders invariably fail to mention is that the graduation rate has been artificially puffed up by backing away from the high-stakes tests that students formerly had to pass in order to get a diploma, or that a below-passing score has been good enough to pass the third-grade reading test.

It will be interesting to see what happens next spring when the passing score on the reading test is raised a notch. Instead of seven percent failing on the first attempt this year, it would have been more like 30 percent under the higher standard. That’s more than 11,000 third-graders who could be held back in 2019 unless they can pass the test on two more attempts, or unless the Department of Education gets a whole lot more liberal with granting “good-cause exemptions” from the reading requirement.

If 11,000 third-graders are retained a year from now, not only would that put schools and parents into a panic, it would raise questions about how well the Republican education reforms are working.

With state elections gearing up about at the same time, the GOP incumbents — especially Reeves, the likely Republican nominee for governor — are not going to want that to happen. They have already shown a tendency to look the other way when standards are watered down. They’ll do it again if it suits their political interests.

The whole reason that Mississippi instituted the A-to-F grading system was to cut through the education bureaucratese and give the public an easily understandable way to know how well its schools and their students were performing. Maybe it created an unrealistic expectation that once performance was objectively measured and schools were graded, they would feel the pressure to do better and improvement would come quickly and steadily, instead of slowly and unevenly.

But even if the expectations were unrealistic, trying to meet them through grade inflation is not the answer. If you give students a better grade than they deserve, it doesn’t motivate them to do better. It lulls them into complacency. It’s no different with schools.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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