August 16, 2013 10:18:14 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi history students can breathe easier: The passing score required on the state's high school U.S. history exam is unlikely to rise until at least 2015.
The state Board of Education is likely to vote Friday to keep the passing score at its current "basic" level, putting off earlier plans to raise it closer to a level rated "proficient" in the 2013-2014 school year.
James Mason, who heads testing for the Mississippi Department of Education, told board members at a Thursday work session that the exam is tougher than tests in algebra, English and science that are required for graduation. He also said that because most Mississippi students take U.S. history as juniors, they have fewer times to retake the test if they fail the first time, compared to the other subjects. Subject tests are offered multiple times a year.
"What we're trying to do with this pass/fail is measure a minimum, basic competency," Mason said in an interview.
Rachel Canter, the executive director of education reform group Mississippi First, questioned the decision.
"The reality is, there are kids in districts who are on this line and we're telling them that they know enough history to graduate from high school and they really don't," Canter said.
This spring, 81 percent of Mississippi students passed the history test the first time they took it, but only 70 percent would have passed if the score had been raised. 2013 was the second time this version of the test has been given. The first time the test was given in 2012, 72 percent passed. Student performance typically improves significantly in the early years of a new state test, as teachers and students become more familiar with it.
If Mississippi had raised the bar in 2013, only 70 percent of students would have passed on their first try.
About 5 percent of seniors last spring didn't have a passing U.S. history score, but not all failed to graduate because of that. Some students who transferred into Mississippi public schools weren't tested because they took history elsewhere. Others also didn't pass all classes needed to graduate, or failed another subject test.
The delay comes as the state anticipates new, tougher math and English tests as a result of the Common Core state standards that it has adopted.
Two states that have given tests already under the new standards -- New York and Kentucky -- have found that passing rates fell sharply. That's in line with what the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows -- that most American students are not proficient, even though large majorities pass state tests. For example, NAEP found in 2011 that only 15 percent of Mississippi eighth-graders are proficient in writing, and only 31 percent of eighth-graders nationwide. That same year, Mississippi's test showed 46 percent of eighth graders were proficient in language arts, a category that combines reading and writing.
That ability to set the state bar low is supposed to end with Common Core, where scoring levels are supposed to be set nationwide. Mason said a panel that studied the history test wants to wait until a multi-state group including Mississippi rolls out those tests in 2015 before bumping up the history bar.
Mason said the history test is the hardest test Mississippi gives, requiring the most abstract thinking. Plus, he said there hasn't been as much effort to improve social studies instruction as there has been for math and language arts.
"We've got to allow the field time to catch up," he said.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the exam has a high standard, and he leaves the decision to the Board of Education.
Mason also noted that under a new accountability system that the state is likely to adopt, standards are supposed to increase when 75 percent of students score at proficient levels. In 2012, 54 percent of students scored at proficient levels. That number probably increased in 2013, but the department said it won't release any testing data until next week.
Canter said the state Board of Education had never followed through on an earlier pledge to increase the numeric scores required for school and district grades. Such increases could have resulted in the state having no A-rated schools and few B-rated schools.
"When the Common Core assessments come around, we're not going to be able to play these games," Canter said.