January 21, 2021 10:28:43 AM
Mississippi legislators are considering a Senate Bill that would allow third graders who fail this school year's state-required reading assessment to move on to fourth grade, and area educators say they support the move.
The bill is based on a recommendation from state Superintendent Carey Wright, who also asked in a presentation to the Senate Education Committee earlier this month that legislators waive passing requirements for high school end-of-year assessments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think this year is a year of grace," Wright said in a Mississippi Department of Education press release issued after the presentation. "I understand that COVID-19 has disrupted teaching and learning this year, and we want to make sure we support teachers, administrators and students as much as possible."
So far, legislators have not taken up the matter of the upper-level exams.
State law requires students at certain grade levels take "high-stakes" end-of-year exams -- including the third grade reading gate and exams in Algebra I, English II, biology and U.S. history for high schoolers. Not only do the results determine grade promotion or graduation for students, they also heavily factor into a school district's accountability rating, an A-F grading scale assessed by MDE each year.
Last year, after the pandemic shut down schools starting in March, students did not sit for any exams, and districts kept their accountability ratings from the 2018-19 school year. At the beginning of this school year, students were going to take the tests and be scored as normal.
Now Wright and MDE officials recommend districts still keep the 2018-19 accountability scores, but students still take the exams. That way district officials can determine how effective virtual and hybrid learning methods have been during the pandemic.
"Statewide assessments provide critical data to the department to identify any learning gaps and what resources the state needs to accelerate learning opportunities for students and professional development for teachers," Wright said.
No 'fair way' to score the test
Area superintendents said they agreed with Wright's recommendations, especially with school districts operating with as many as three learning models simultaneously.
Both Lowndes County and Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated school districts have some students attending virtual classes and some attending in-person classes. Columbus Municipal School District has a virtual model where students attend online only and a "hybrid" model with students splitting time between in-person and online learning.
All three districts offered students multiple opportunities to change their learning model throughout the year.
"There would really be no fair way to (score the exams) because every school is having school differently," LCSD Superintendent Sam Allison told The Dispatch. "So it would really be hard to have a standard there where you really haven't had (a standard way of learning). It's always different, but you have some virtual, some hybrid, some in-person learning, so I just don't think there was any way they could fairly assess students on a graduation test this year, and I think they realize that too."
SOCSD Superintendent Eddie Peasant echoed Allison's concerns.
"The assessments are not going to change," he said. "However, ... we're at a disadvantage, obviously, because of the pandemic and because of students' different methods of learning throughout this time and the loss of time we had (last year), some of our students adjusting to virtual situations. So yes, I'm in favor of those being waived for this year."
Jason Spears, president of CMSD's Board of Trustees, said he likes the idea of waiving the passing requirements, provided there is some effort on the part of state and districts to ensure students who do fail have opportunities to get extra help and catch up. He called it a "double-edged sword" to balance treating students fairly and ensure they are prepared for academic work in the future.
"They're trying not to harm the students and say, 'Well, you're going to have to repeat third grade because you're not reading at this level,'" he said. "I believe there needs to be additional follow-through to ensure ... some type of system in place (to) say, 'This is how you need to repair what may have been caused by (the pandemic's disruptions) in the students' academic progress.'"
Opinions of legislators
As currently written, the Senate bill states that students who do fail the reading gate would be promoted to fourth grade but also "shall be given ... remedial instruction," through an individualized reading plan.
Some legislators are divided over that particular aspect of the bill. Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D-West Point), who has authored bills in the past to do away with passing requirements for assessments in typical school years, said she is against enforcing remediation.
She said she hadn't yet had the opportunity to look at the Senate bill, but agrees with Wright's recommendation that students be promoted no matter their score.
"I do not support the idea of remediation," she said. "... I'm not sure what the measuring tool would be -- is it remediation for each student, or would it be applied according to some other standard? I think we should just dispense with the requirement altogether and just let these students progress onto the next grade."
Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville), however, aligned more with Spears and said there should be a balance between allowing leeway for students whose learning has been disrupted and ensuring the state doesn't lower its standards.
"We're going to need a little flexibility to get this right," Taylor said. "These things don't happen in a vacuum. ... We have to maintain that, although we want the best for our students, trust me, before their high school career is up, they're going to have to have mastered some information and have to dig a little deeper, but those are just going to have to be some things that we address as we go along."
Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) talked to The Dispatch about the issue last week before the bill was written and said that generally, he likes the idea of waiving the passing requirements for all high-stakes tests for this year. However, he said, he doesn't know if everyone in the Senate Education Committee would agree and pointed out the state and federal government has spent a lot of money to ensure students could still go to school virtually.
"You know, we're spending all this money on the virtual teaching and everything, so it's kind of 'damned if you do and damned if you don't,' pardon the language," he said.
Other representatives, including first-term legislator Rep. Lynn Wright (R-Columbus), who is a former LCSD superintendent, and Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus) said they would support the idea if it made it to the House.
"What I would have to do is have to listen to all information that is brought forward on it, but if it's a recommendation from Dr. Wright and the state department of education, I feel sure I would support it," Rep. Wright said.
Karriem said waiving the requirements is "long overdue."
"Especially during COVID, I think it's an excellent idea, and I think everything needs to be reassessed where we are, because I don't think children are doing too well with virtual learning either," he said. "I think it's long overdue. I would accept her recommendation."
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