Teachers have grace period on test results, state says

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 1, 2001

[08/01/01] How local students perform on new statewide exit exams will not affect teachers’ jobs for the next two academic years, a state official told Vicksburg Warren School District principals Tuesday.

The Education Department won’t apply the new regimen’s accountability standards until September 2003, spokesman Judy Robbins said. Classes this year begin Aug. 13.

“I don’t think I can say when people are going to start having to worry about getting fired, but let’s just say we’re a good way away from that point,” Robbins said.

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Robbins is traveling Mississippi to explain the state’s Curriculum Content Assessment System with school district officials, many of whom she said are worried about their jobs under the plan.

On a previous visit, she explained how the new tests work. Approved by legislators in 2000, the system of “high-stakes” tests will replace the Functional Literacy Exam (FLE) as a graduation requirement over the next three school terms. Students who entered 9th grade in 1999-2000 will be the last group required to pass the entire FLE. The freshman classes of 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 need only pass its mathematics section, and the 9th graders of 2002-2003 will not take the FLE.

“Everyone thought it was time to raise the bar a little. It was too low,” Robbins said of the FLE, which asks students to prove their ability to use checking accounts, phone books and roadmaps.

Unlike the FLE, which students have several chances to pass starting in the 11th grade, the new system sets a comprehensive curriculum test every year for grades 2 through 8 as well as subject-area assessments in high school. Students who do not pass the exams will not advance toward graduation. About 26 states now use similar tests.

As in other statewide testing systems, it’s not just the students who are being tested. Schools and particular teachers will be rated based on how students perform.

In Mississippi, schools will be required to meet an annual growth expectation on the curriculum test measured by charting the test scores of a group of students from one grade to another.

Based on this year’s curriculum test results, the growth model will be developed next fall and will identify low-performing “priority schools” starting in July 2003.

Under the supervision of seven-member teams approved by the Education Department, such schools will develop improvement plans with input from district officials, parents and community members. Principals and teachers identified by the plans as “needing improvement” will face dismissal if their school doesn’t improve from priority status after two more years of testing.

Under those stipulations, principals and teachers at low-scoring schools here wouldn’t start losing their jobs until the spring of 2005.

“It’s a process with a lot of human hands involved,” Robbins said. “Just because you’re at a priority school doesn’t mean you’re going to be fired. We aren’t going to be firing based only on statistics.”

Other than accountability issues, concerns about score measurement dominated the question-and-answer session with Robbins.

Sherman Avenue Elementary Principal Rick Tillotson said he worries that home conditions might affect students’ test scores.

“Some of them live with one parent one part of the year and another for the other part of the year,” Tillotson said.

Robbins said scorers have room to take special circumstances into account.

“What is important is that this isn’t all statistics,” she said. “We should take everything into account when we look at how you’re doing.”