The Mississippi Department of Education—in a move likely to cheer longtime critics of the state’s assessment policies—is raising its testing standards to more accurately measure how students in the Magnolia State compare with their peers elsewhere in the country.
The unanimous July 25 vote by the Mississippi Board of Education raising the scores required for students to qualify as proficient on state tests is part of a broader effort to raise student achievement that also includes a close examination of curriculum.
“Mississippi has consistently ranked at or near the bottom in terms of academic performance, and one of the reasons is that our expectations have been too low,” Hank S. Bounds, the state superintendent of education, said in an interview.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states must test students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school, ranking them as either advanced, proficient, basic, or below basic. Under the law, all students must be proficient in those subjects by the 2013-14 school year.
But in Mississippi, there has long been a considerable gap between students’ overall performance on state tests intended to satisfy NCLB requirements and those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.”
For instance, the state’s average score on the 2007 NAEP test for 4th grade reading was 208, below the national average of 220. Only Louisiana and the District of Columbia scored lower.
But that same year, about 90 percent of Mississippi’s 4th graders were rated as either advanced or proficient in reading. Under the state’s new standards, roughly 45 percent of 4th graders would be categorized that way.
The new state standards—intended to be more closely aligned with NAEP—will mean that fewer of the state’s 493,000 students are likely to score proficient on the state tests.
One state board member says there could be a backlash.
“I suppose there will be a little shock to the general public that not as many reach the level of mastery that they’ve been reaching, but we think in the long run it will be beneficial to the students,” said O. Wayne Gann, a member of the nine-member board who served as superintendent of the Cornith, Miss., school district for 27 years.
A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week