A new report suggests when it comes to state tests, Mississippi needs to be more transparent about what it measures and how often students take them.

Mississippi First, a nonprofit advocacy group, worked with four undisclosed school districts to examine the amount of time students spend on state and district mandated testing, what factors may increase the amount of time spent on testing, and what teachers think about the topic. The districts range in demographics such as enrollment and accountability rating and were granted anonymity to ensure honest responses, according to the report.

Mississippi First is a nonprofit advocacy organization for public schools and focuses on expanding charter school options and pre-kindergarten programs.

Mississippi switched state tests three times in three years, starting with the Mississippi Curriculum Test and moving to the PARCC test in the 2014-15 school year, but only used that test for a year. The state switched tests in the 2015-16 school year and currently uses the Mississippi Assessment Program (MAP).

According to the report, in 2014-15 grades 3-8 spent the most time in state testing, with an average of 11 hours and 41 minutes, or 1.1 percent of the school year. Kindergarten through second grade averaged an hour and 30 minutes of testing time, and grades 9-11 spent 7 hours.

The report noted that time spent taking a test is not reflective of how much time districts devote to standardized testing, and suggested students may benefit more from “shorter, frequent assessments” in a well-designed curriculum rather than a single summative assessment.

“Lost instructional time comes not only from the time it takes to complete a test but also from testing-related disruptions to the normal school day,” the report said.

Several educators interviewed for the study said unplanned technical issues and the availability of technology played a role in how efficiently their districts could administer state tests.

As for district-level testing, the report found the districts used testing products supplied by many of the same vendors, but each one used the products differently.

Mississippi First executive director and co-author of the report Rachel Canter said the four districts surveyed for the report each used STAR math and reading assessments, but administered them at varying grade levels and frequencies.

School districts have more autonomy when it comes to district-level testing — unlike state testing, there is no mandate on how many district-level tests a student must take. This leads to vastly different testing experiences, according to the report, which found district-mandated testing “ranged from an average of 10 tests per grade to 27 tests per grade” depending on the district.

In focus groups, teachers said there was “an environment in which standardized testing had become so frequent that parents and students could not differentiate” between district and state tests, according to the report.

Canter said the terminology surrounding testing can be very confusing, and districts need to do a better job communicating the nuances between different kinds of tests so parents and students better understand what they’re taking and why.

“When the child comes home and says ‘I have a test today,’ it can be hard for a parent to sort through,” Canter said. “School districts don’t appear to be right now doing the best job explaining what they’re using different testing for, how they use that data once they get it, and who has mandated that test.”

Mississippi First had these recommendations for school districts:

• Increase transparency about testing by publishing a table of all their standardized tests, with state and district-level testing clearly identified. The report suggests districts also host a parent meeting about testing.

• Make tests more valuable to teachers for instruction by allowing them to review state testing data through formalized procedures in the beginning of the school year. The report also recommends conducting an audit of all of a district’s testing to better understand how much time testing takes and what purposes it serves.

• Support and review rigorous tests created by teachers themselves, not vendors

• Adopt or create policies to protect instruction time by reviewing teachers’ pacing guides, examining the length of the school day and year, and other policies

The report also recommends that the Mississippi Department of Education create an accessible guide for parents about state testing. The department should also press state test vendors for a quicker turnaround on score reporting so teachers have more time to analyze their students’ data.

Suggestions for the Mississippi Legislature include avoiding “adding to the confusion with overblown rhetoric about testing.” During the 2018 session, several Democratic legislators pushed to end “exit exams.”

State Education Superintendent Carey Wright Credit: Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

State Superintendent Carey Wright said earlier this year that this complaint was a misconception because while Mississippi is required by the federal government to administer end of course exams, there are no exit exams and “it’s hard to eliminate something you don’t have.”

Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, authored several bills to do away with end of course assessments and replace them with the ACT exam, arguing that end of course assessments keep teachers from teaching and put barriers in place for many students to graduate.

In a statement, Miles said reiterated that the time and effort spent on test preparation takes away from instruction and adds stress and strain to teachers and students.

“Some refuse to acknowledge what teachers and principals know: entire schools must shut down, and the teachers are taken out of classrooms to give these tests,” he said.

Miles said the issue is one he will revisit during the next legislative session.

“I believe that we will be able to come up with a good solution working together to end the excessive testing burden for our students, parents, and teachers,” Miles said.

Mississippi First’s report also suggests that the Legislature leave vendor testing decisions to the Department of Education, citing bills filed by Miles and others that would have forced the state to replace subject-area-tests and earn a minimum score on the ACT instead. None of those bills survived the session.

“The Legislature goes on and on about how we tell every child they have to go to college, and then they want to come back and mandate a college readiness exam to graduate high school,” Canter said. “I think there is a real concern that if we got rid of everything and replaced it with the ACT, we would be making a policy decision that would not fit some kids and would be just as big a problem as they are complaining about.”

The full report and its recommendations are available here.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.