A group of about 30 students, parents and educators met for the first time today to tackle the mammoth topic of state testing. They all share the same questions — why are students tested so much, and what is really done with the results?

The Mississippi Student State Testing Task Force, announced earlier this year, met for the first time in Jackson Tuesday to discuss the volume, quality, and different types of tests administered to public school students in the state. Over the course of the year, the group will examine testing and eventually produce recommendations on how to improve it.

State Superintendent Carey Wright reminded the task force that assessments are given so that students have an opportunity to show teachers what they know and what they’re struggling with, and that allows educators to design an appropriate instructional program.

“Students don’t know what you don’t teach,” Wright said. “So the only way we can find out whether we taught it well enough or whether our students mastered it is to be able to find a way to assess what it is they know and are able to do.”

In recent times 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. The state switched once more in the 2015-16 school year and currently uses the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP).

Superintendent of Clinton Public Schools Tim Martin said he thinks the state is still in a paradigm shift from all the different kinds of state tests students have been through in recent years. With the Mississippi Curriculum Test, teachers could “drill and kill,” or make students memorize facts so they could pass the tests, he said.

With the current test, the drill and kill method does not work.

“You’ve got to teach students to think and analyze information from various sources and put it together,” Martin said. “I think districts just have not caught up to that fact.”

Kristina Pollard is the principal of the Earl Travillion Attendance Center in the Forest County School District. Students are tested frequently so that districts can better track their progress, she said, because it is a common practice that’s generally understood to be best for the kids.

“Where did that come from and why are we doing that?” Pollard said. “In a district like mine, you (MDE) have made me feel a little alarmed about what type of pressures we’re putting on teachers and students in that effort of trying to improve your school.”

Students also chimed in to the discussion — Jaylen Patrick from the Mississippi School for the Blind said he spends a lot of time in class taking tests. Nine-week tests, finals, state assessments, district-level tests consume a lot of time he spends at school, he said.

“It does take away from a lot of our instructional time,” he said.

Ocean Springs High School student Sadie Smith said in 10th grade she spent a lot of time in the computer lab completing practice tests to prepare her for the state test in reading, but she is a strong reader already and felt her time would have been better spent practicing her writing skills.

“I’m going to need to know how to write for college and I just feel like I was short cutted,” Smith said.

Earlier this spring, education advocacy nonprofit Mississippi First released a detailed report on the amount and types of testing in four anonymous districts. The report offered several recommendations, urging the state to increase transparency and stop over relying on test prep programs.

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. Mississippi First’s report showed vastly different testing experiences because of this. In the four districts studied, district-mandated testing “ranged from an average of 10 tests per grade to 27 tests per grade” depending on the district.

At a news conference after the meeting, Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, who has been very vocal about state testing and filed several bills during the last legislative session to abolish exit exams and replace with with the ACT, said the Mississippi Department of Education needs to set a “uniform policy” for districts to follow.

“They should set a policy for our school districts to follow instead of passing the buck onto our teachers, onto our districts saying the’re not doing their job,” Miles said.

Mississippi Association of Educators President Joyce Helmick agreed with his suggestion. On Tuesday, her organization released a “Report from the Front Lines,” a compilation of responses from teachers all over the state giving personal accounts of how testing puts a strain on them and their classrooms.

What struck Helmick about the responses, she said, is “they’re basically all the same. The testing process is stressful not only to the teachers but to the students themselves.”

Whitney Drewery is the 2018 Mississippi Teacher of the Year, and told reporters after the meeting that all of the testing is very stressful for teachers, and students can tell, which affects them as well.

“It doesn’t affect the way I treat them or anything like that, it’s just you don’t ever want to see a child as a number,” The special education teacher at Lafayette County Schools said. “You want to be able to teach the whole child. You don’t ever want to turn it into a numbers game, which I’m scared it could push that way.”

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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.