EDITORIAL: Testing time

By NEMS Daily Journal

It’s high-stakes time again for public schools in Northeast Mississippi and around the state. This week, statewide testing begins.
It starts with high schools on Wednesday. Third- through eighth-graders’ testing begins May 10.
The results ultimately will determine state accountability rankings for individual schools and school districts, which will be announced early in the 2011-12 school year.
A national debate continues to rage about the increased emphasis on standardized testing, and it reverberates at the local level in most communities.
With so much focus on testing, the question is often asked whether children are being shortchanged on more important educational goals, such as development of critical thinking skills and creative problem-solving.
At a theoretical level, Mississippi’s curriculum and subject area tests measure what students should know at a certain stage of their education. “Teaching to the test,” a term usually used in a derogatory way, is really a way of saying that teachers are emphasizing the subject matter and body of knowledge students are expected to have mastered. What’s wrong with that?
And yet when so much emphasis is placed on a single round of testing, it’s undoubtedly true that it is an imperfect measure of how effectively a school, a teacher or anybody else involved in the educational process is performing.
But it’s what the public sees and uses to measure school performance, and comparisons from school to school and district to district are inevitable. The comparisons aren’t always apples to apples; in Mississippi, a school or district’s ranking is heavily weighted on progress made from one year to the next. Thus, a district like Tupelo can have higher overall scores than another but be ranked lower because its year-to-year progress hasn’t met state benchmarks.
So our accountability system is not perfect, but it’s better than what existed for so long – little public accountability, or a system like the one we had until a couple of years ago that provided an overly rosy picture of student performance. Comparisons were made only to other schools in the state and not to national performance indicators.
The public deserves some tangible measure of student performance, and Mississippi’s system, in spite of its flaws, is as good or better than most.
Like everything else in education, though, what happens in the schools with testing is not solely dependent on the schools themselves. Research repeatedly demonstrates a high correlation between home background – involved, interested parents who place an emphasis on education – and student achievement.
Parent accountability won’t make its way into state law or policy, but it’s a big part of the overall picture.
Tuesday: What parents can do