Fluctuating Test Scores Have Mississippi Educators Perplexed

The Mississippi State Department of Education flagged 17 schools last year whose assessment test scores were inconsistent with "data prediction models" writes Emily Le Coz for The Clarion Ledger. One of those schools, Heidelberg Elementary in Clarksdale, had performed better than expected on every incarnation of their test results.

While James H. Mason, the department's student assessment director, said he recollects no reports of cheating, odd tales concerning the students formerly at Heidelberg are arousing suspicions about what really happened.

One example of the scores at Heidelberg School that raised concern is that 67% of third-graders scored below average on the Mississippi Curriculum Test three years ago. When the same children took the test in fifth grade, fewer than 3% scored below average and more than half scored in the advanced level, the highest ranking possible.

Heidelberg Principal Lowanda Tyler-Jones and Clarksdale Municipal School District Superintendent Dennis Dupree agreed that nothing untoward occurred, and they were proud of the improvements they saw in the students' scores.

However, when teachers at Oakhurst Intermediate School welcomed the former Heidelberg students, they noticed that the children who had scored above grade-level on the 2013 Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT) could now barely read or do basic math. In fact, when graded at nine weeks last October, some of those students failed.

The principal of the Heidelberg school says there was no cheating on the test at her school. She said the problem was with the Oakhurst Intermediate School.

Yet, 42 Heidelberg students scored as advanced in reading and 41 had scored as advanced in math on last year's MCT2. Upon their assessment three months later, six students tested on or above last year's grade-level for reading skills, and 23 scored the same for math. A former Heidelberg student told The Clarion Ledger that her English teacher read the answers to the class during last year's testing. The teacher denies these allegations.

The Oakhurst School had to rearrange its class scheduling in order to accommodate students who were erroneously put in advanced classes. Also, students who would have normally qualified for extra services because of low performance are not able to access these services now because of their advanced status.

The Heidelberg students' performance levels resulted in the school being given a $10 million federal Race to the Top grant in December. This grant was based on the entire district rising from an F to a D rating, based on the the Heidelberg rise from an F school to an A school in two years time. Some parents support the school and its rigorous program. Others say that their children have told them of indiscretions that the students themselves have observed.

Mason explained:

"We look at erasure patterns," Mason said. "We look at similar answer patterns where students are all marking the same answers. We look at extreme volatility on statewide rankings — how schools are doing yearly compared to past years and compared to other schools in the state."

Mason added that last year was the first time that the state shared its data with the flagged schools and encouraged them to conduct their own internal assessments and then report to the Mississippi Department of Education. Auditors were also sent to some schools to monitor test-taking.

Mississippi is currently struggling with improving schools statewide. Like many other states, "despite massive increases in public education funding, student performance has either remained constant or declined," says Steve Wilson of Mississippi Watchdog.

The study by the Cato Institute's Andrew J. Coulson, director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom, analyzed data collected since 1972 for per-pupil spending and student performance using state SAT score averages adjusted for participation rates and student demographics.

"The fact that inflation-adjusted per pupil spending has more than doubled over the past 40 years while academic achievement has stagnated or declined is a huge disappointment," Coulson said. "But rather than spend time allocating blame it seems more productive to ask: how can we turn things around? What kinds of education systems make the most effective use of every dollar they spend?

Neither hiring more teachers nor increasing state funding is the solution, says Coulson. If more teachers and more money were the answer, improved student achievement would follow, but it has not.

In this cacophony of disagreement, Mississippi is reworking its school districts' rating system, according to the Associated Press. The main focus is to put more weight on the high school graduation component.

The Mississippi Board of Education will release these ratings in the fall of this year, based on testing and graduation statistics. The federal government has made clear that they would disallow any system in which graduation did not count for at least 20%of all the points. The state's original submission had graduation rates counting for only 10%of points used for A to F grades.

05 19, 2014
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