EDITORIAL: New standards are tough

Mississippi’s new accountability and accreditation standards are proving to be as challenging as advertised.
The state Board of Education and former state Superintendent Hank Bounds, now commissioner of higher education, had emphasized that the goal of the new standards was to bring Mississippi’s student achievement assessments more in line with the nation and therefore more truly reflective of where students and schools stand academically.
The state had been scoring well by its own standards but much worse when compared with national norms.
Adoption of more rigorous standards a couple of years ago meant more difficult tests. That in turn meant a tough adjustment period would be coming, Bounds and the state board warned.
The second year of the new standards yielded a dose of that reality when curriculum and subject area test scores from spring 2009 were released last week. Scores around the state were essentially flat, with a few gains here and there. Northeast Mississippi followed basically the same pattern.
Some educators were hoping for bigger gains in the second year of the tougher testing, but didn’t get them – at least not as part of an overall pattern.
An even bigger jolt will likely come in October when ratings for districts and individual schools are announced. In the transition to the new, tougher testing last year, the state Department of Education gave schools a reprieve from those labels.
Since the mid-1990s, schools and communities have been used to the Level 1 through 5 system of school rankings. Level 5 was the highest achievable, and no less than 25 percent of Mississippi schools had attained the designation in 2007. It had become obvious that the standards weren’t what they should be.
The new system will designate Star schools, High Performing, Successful, At-Risk and Failing. It’s a rough correlation to Level 5 down to 1, but the distribution will be much different. It will be much harder to get a Star designation than the old Level 5, and many former Level 5 or 4 schools and districts will see their standing drop, relatively speaking.
The natural tendency will be to assume that the districts have declined significantly in performance, when instead the changes will reflect the tougher standards.
This new way of assessing Mississippi’s student performance is necessary for a truly honest evaluation of educational performance and needs in the state. A system built on soft state standards that allow for feel-good but inflated results does no one any good, least of all the students.
It’s a tough road, but it’s the right one for Mississippi schools to travel. Higher standards invariably will produce better results – even if it takes a while longer than hoped.

NEMS Daily Journal