Don’t kill tests, kill test prep

By TIM KALICH GREENWOOD COMMONWEALTH,

How surprising. The Mississippi Department of Education polled high school teachers and three-fourths of them said the state should stop requiring students to take a comprehensive U.S. history exam to demonstrate they have acquired some of the knowledge expected of a high school graduate.

Of course teachers don’t like the state exams — whether this one or any of the others administered in math or English or science from third grade on up. They don’t like the pressure of being judged by how much their students have learned. Nor do they like the pressure they feel from their principals and superintendents to raise test scores so as to avoid public ridicule and, if the results are bad enough, the possibility of a state takeover.

But the history test should not be shelved because teachers don’t like giving it, or because students don’t like taking it. It should be shelved only if it no longer serves a useful academic purpose.

Its purpose, admittedly, has been watered down in recent years by the state Board of Education, which has followed the lead of the Department of Education bureaucrats in de-emphasizing high-stakes testing so as to artifically pump up graduation rates.

Not too long ago, most high schoolers were expected to pass the U.S. history exam and three other subject area tests — in biology, algebra and English — in order to qualify for a diploma. It didn’t matter what their grades were; if they couldn’t pass the tests after multiple tries, no diploma.

The tests were a way to establish some modest objective standards of student competence and to keep teachers honest, so that they stopped promoting kids who couldn’t read or write or think, and so that the teachers used classtime to actually try to teach something.

The downside was not that a quarter of students didn’t graduate. It was that administrators began to try to game the system by requiring ungodly amounts of classtime be devoted to test prep, in hopes that practice made perfect and that they would increase the test scores and take pressure off of themselves.

The oft-repeated claim being peddled by educators, parents and some politicians that the state requires too much testing is a bunch of malarkey. Four tests for high schoolers over the course of their four years, and a couple of tests a year for third- through eighth-graders are not an undue burden.

The problem with testing is not at the state level but the district one. School superintendents waste tons of teachers’ time and public money on assessments that have marginal value in raising performance on state tests but a huge impact in discouraging teachers and extinguishing whatever little love students might have had for learning.

If the state Board of Education wants to remedy the problem, it does not need to drop the U.S. history exam or any other of the state-required tests. What it needs to do is limit all of this mind-numbing and expensive test prep to one practice test before the real thing is administered.

If teachers simply concentrate on the subject matter and work on ways to actively engage their students in learning it, the test results will take care of themselves. And if they don’t, it’s not because of the tests. It’s because of what happened in the classroom in the eight months or so before the tests were administered.

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