OUR OPINION: Rigorous begins to pay off

By NEMS Daily Journal

Four years ago, Mississippi launched a new system of school accountability designed to give a more realistic view of how the state’s students compared with the nation’s.
The existing curriculum and testing had yielded a large proportion of high-ranked schools – Levels 4 and 5 on a five-tiered scale – but Mississippi’s students were being measured only against each other. This created a misleading picture, since Mississippi’s overall performance was poor compared to national norms.
When the Department of Education under the leadership of then-state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds developed the new standards, there was a good bit of fear and trepidation. Schools that had been perceived as performing well would have a tougher job living up to that reputation, and they couldn’t rest on their laurels. The new system, after all, would require not only solid performance for a school or district to be rated high, it would demand improvement from year to year for that rating to be maintained.
It was all about increasing academic rigor – about expecting more of students and teachers. Mississippi is beginning to see signs that those expectations are producing better results.
Data from standardized tests taken this spring were released last week, and the results were impressive. For the first time since the new system was adopted, more than half of the state’s students scored in the top two categories, proficient and advanced. This is particularly meaningful given that the current standardized tests, more in line with national norms, are significantly tougher than the previous ones.
Northeast Mississippi had a number of schools and districts that scored in the top tier statewide. As with the state as a whole, this region’s schools for the most part are on an upward arc.
How these results will translate into school rankings, which will be announced after the school year begins, remains to be seen. But Mississippians can be confident that those rankings actually mean something now.
There’s no denying that the emphasis on testing is much greater now in Mississippi and elsewhere than it used to be. That means additional pressure on students and particularly teachers and administrators. But ultimately this emphasis is good for children by necessitating a lazer-like focus on what the curriculum is designed to teach.
Mississippi wasn’t doing anyone any favors under the old system. We now have a much better idea of how our students stack up. But not only that; we now see that when the bar is raised, students and teachers will reach higher than perhaps they knew they could.