A student takes a test

Amid repeated complaints about the toll testing takes on students and teachers, the Mississippi Department of Education is considering doing away with a high school state assessment. Doing so may cause a ripple effect of changes to policies surrounding state and federal law.

On Monday morning, Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Tim Martin presented the student testing task force‘s recommendation to eliminate the U.S History assessment, an exam high schoolers must take to graduate, to the Commission on School Accreditation.

Earlier this summer, the department polled more than 3,100 high school teachers at the request of the task force and asked whether Mississippi should continue the U.S. History end-of-course assessment. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said no, and when broken down by type of teacher, the majority also said no:

  • 73 percent of respondents who identified as U.S. History teachers said no
  • 74 percent of respondents who identified as history teachers (not U.S. history) said no
  • 79 percent of other teachers said no

There are 14 assessments for students in grades K-12 that are required by state or federal law or state board of education policy. End-of-course assessments in Algebra I, English II and Biology are required by state and federal law, but U.S. History is only required by board policy. These tests are required, but students who do not pass have other options to try and meet graduation requirements.

The task force zoned in on the U.S. History assessment because it is the only test all high schoolers take that is required solely by state board policy, meaning approval from the Legislature or federal government would not be necessary to get rid of the test. Eliminating the test does not mean teachers will stop teaching U.S. History in schools.

John Paul Mistilis is a U.S History teacher at Oxford High School, as well as a member of the Commission on School Accreditation. At Monday’s meeting, he told members (via phone) that although he voted no on the poll, he and other U.S History teachers have concerns about nixing the exam.

“We feel it’s a double-edged sword,” Mistilis said. “We feel that the only thing that makes social studies significant or looked at as being important is the fact that it is tested. And our theory is that if the test goes away, then the importance of social studies will eventually go away with it.”

Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, is one the most vocal legislative proponents of eliminating end-of-course assessments. On Monday he said he was thankful the department was considering removing the exam.

“I’m just so proud to see the Mississippi Department of Education has finally admitted and accepted that we have a testing problem in Mississippi,” Miles told Mississippi Today.

In previous legislative sessions Miles filed multiple bills to remove end-of-course assessments and replace them with the ACT exam, arguing that these tests keep teachers from teaching and put barriers in place for many students to graduate.

“We shouldn’t let one test determine (students’) outcome, if they get a diploma or not,” Miles said. “If we don’t let our children get a diploma after all 12 years of success, we’re setting them up for failure in the future.”

During the meeting, commission member Roy Gill warned of the potential unintended consequences of removing this test.

“I’m perfectly alright reducing the number of assessments, but we all have to be very cognizant of the ripple effect that it has on schools in today’s world,” said Gill, who is superintendent of Harrison County School District.

Student performance on the U.S. History test is one component used in Mississippi’s accountability model, which assigns an A-F rating to schools and districts. If the test goes away, the model and the way districts are scored would need to be revised. The change would also affect the state’s federal education plan required by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Mississippi’s accountability model is part of this plan, which means if the test was removed the state would have to resubmit its plan to the federal government.

The commission voted unanimously in favor of the task force’s recommendation to eliminate the test, which means the issue now moves on to the state board of education at its September meeting. Should the board accept this recommendation, it would go through a public comment period then come back to the board for final approval. If approved, it would take effect in the 2020-21 school year.

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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.