December 9, 2009 10:23:00 AM
Jason Browne - [email protected]
Members of the Columbus Rotary Club went back to school Tuesday and learned a lesson in empathy.
Club members received an eye-opening glimpse of what fifth-graders have to deal with as Steve Rogers, assignment editor for WCBI news, asked them to answer a sampling of questions from the fifth-grade level Mississippi Curriculum Test 2. Local superintendents Dr. Del Phillips (Columbus Municipal School District) and Mike Halford (Lowndes County School District) were on hand to shed additional light on state testing.
"There are a lot of buzzwords about accountability. Today you get to be the guinea pigs," Rogers told the Rotarians.
Mississippi raised its accountability standards this year to determine where the state ranks among national test scores. All 152 school districts also received individual rankings, of which 89 districts -- nearly 60 percent -- ranked less than successful. CMSD ranked "at risk of failing" while LCSD tested one step above Columbus at "academic watch."
Rotarians got a better idea of the aptitude expected of fifth-graders after working through multiple-choice math and language questions, many of which threw them off.
"It was much tougher than I thought it would be," said John Brady, an attorney with Mitchell, McNutt and Sams in Columbus. "Especially the math problems because of the multi-step answer process."
Math word problems such as the following were tricky:
n The Three brothers Bakery bakes 85 cakes each week. If each cake calls for 8 ounces of butter, how many pounds of butter do they use in a week?
F. 10.625 pounds
G. 42.5 pounds
H. 170 pounds
J. 680 pounds
The answer: G. 42.5 pounds; there are 16 ounces in a pound; 85 halves of a pound -- 8 ounces -- are used every week; 85 times one-half equals 42.5.
Brady wasn''t the only Rotarian who struggled with the math problems.
"I was amazed at the process. You had to know so many things to get to the answer," said Beth Jolly, an attorney at Microtek Medical in Columbus. "I do a lot better on language."
Jim Campbell, a retired quality control manager at United Technology with an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee, admitted to being surprised "in a way" at the difficulty of the questions, but declined to draw any conclusions.
"I''m not that familiar with what''s required of a fifth-grader. My kids have been out of school too long," he said.
However, Ira Carter, a retired sales representative for Procter and Gamble with a business degree from Ole Miss, was more than willing to draw a conclusion.
"I couldn''t believe fifth-graders are subjected to that kind of testing. Here I am an 83-year-old college graduate and I couldn''t get any (correct). How do we expect fifth-graders to know this?"
In fairness, Phillips said fifth-graders typically get more than the 10 minutes Rotarians received to answer the 14 questions, which ranged in difficulty from advanced to basic.
For a student to rank as proficient on the test, he or she must correctly answer 37 of 52 questions. Halford pointed out state guidelines call for every student in Mississippi to rank as proficient or advanced by 2014.
"I don''t think it will ever happen," he said.
Briefly switching the focus to graduation rates, Halford pointed out state universities graduate an average of 20 percent of students in four years and 50 percent in six years, but Lowndes and Columbus are considered underperforming districts despite an average graduation rate around 80 percent.
"I take offense as an educator ... we get criticized when colleges can''t get them out in four years," Halford said.
Phillips said preparing students for the test is difficult because the Mississippi Department of Education has altered the test several times in recent years to make it more rigorous. This, he said, puts a difficult burden on schools to train new teachers on how to focus their lesson plans with the test in mind after they learn the curricula taught in universities.
"The link between universities and school districts really has to get better," said Phillips.
A better and cheaper measure of Mississippi students, said Phillips, would be to give all students the same test.
"If we''re going to spend all this money, let''s make it have some value," said Phillips. "We could save a lot of money if we just eliminated (the state tests) and gave the ACT."