Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Students get second look at tougher test

By Billy Davis

Mississippi public school students in grades 3 through 8 will pick up their pencils Tuesday to begin a three-day round of state testing.

This week’s testing begins the second year students will face the MCT 2, a tougher replacement of the long-used MCT. The MCT acronym stands for Mississippi Curriculum Test.

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At South Panola, students are participating at Batesville Middle, Batesville Intermediate, Batesville Junior High and Pope School.

The state testing is prepared by the Miss. Department of Education (MDE), which aligns the test to match classroom curriculums.  The MCT 2 replaced the MCT after the former test, when compared to other state curriculums, was found to be too easy.

“The newer test is about thinking skills,” said BIS teacher Cyndi Goodgame, who came to Mississippi from public schools in Texas.

The older MCT was weaker than state testing in Texas, Goodgame said, but she recognized that last year’s MCT 2 testing at South Panola showed the state has progressed toward national levels.  

“The goal is a good one which is, over a period of time, to raise the level of expectation,” she said. “The students are becoming problem solvers and not just relying on rote memory.”

“It’s not just about recall. They have to think,” explained Dr. Keith Shaffer, the school district superintendent.

Shaffer, like Goodgame, described the newer testing methods as more rigorous than decades-old “achievement tests,” which were put in front of generations of public school students.

Whereas a previous test might have relied on a one-step math problem, the newer MCT 2 requires students to apply mathematics, reading skills, and reading comprehension – all for a single math problem.

On a fifth grade practice test, a math question shows a graph of Rena’s 18 neighbors according to their exercise regimen from 0 to 30 days. The question posed to the student is, “What question can be answered from the data in Rena’s graph?”

The fifth graders must study the graph’s data – the number of neighbors and number of days – to eliminate three of four questions. The graph does not show exercise per day, nor show who is the healthiest neighbor, nor describe the healthiest week to exercise. Instead, students must choose the right question – how many neighbors exercised from 0 to 20 days – then add up four columns to arrive at the final answer.

(The number of neighbors who exercised 0 to 20 days is 35 – we think).

 “The old a-train-leaves-Chicago question – those days are gone,” Shaffer went on to explain.

Public school students in grades 3 through 7 are tested in general mathematics, with eighth graders answering pre-Algebra questions.

All grades are tested for vocabulary, reading, writing and grammar skills on the Language Acts section.

The Reading section is administered on day one and the Writing section is administered on day two, both part of the Language Arts curriculum. Mathematics is administered on day three.

The MCT 2 is an “untimed, multiple-choice assessment,” according to the MDE.  

The more rigorous testing also comes with pressure for students to do well, since their private individual test scores add up to very public scores for the schools and the school district.

The tests begin today with Batesville Middle and Batesville Junior High ranked as “at risk of failing,” according to state guidelines. MDE refers to its guidelines as an “accountability status” of the school.

Batesville Intermediate and Pope Elementary both scored a “successful” last year based on students’ first encounter with the MCT 2.

At South Panola High, which does not participate in the MCT 2, MDE recognized the school as “high performing,” based on students’ testing in Algebra I, English II, Biology and U.S. History.

A BJH parent told The Panolian her son “felt pressured” last year, when he prepared to take the MCT 2 at Batesville Middle School.

“It felt like punishment, like they couldn’t be kids,” she said. “This year it’s better – and better organized.”

Shaffer acknowledged there is pressure for South Panola to excel. He described how it’s well known that an industrial employer will compare public education in Batesville with state test results in other locations, such as Clarksdale and Tupelo.

“But there’s got to be a positive motivation,” he said. “The students have no clue and no concept of what the scores mean. They just need to be encouraged by moms and dads, aunts and uncles to do well.”

Shaffer recalled an assembly for BMS students Friday, where the atmosphere resembled a pep rally for the football team.

The superintendent said he encouraged the students to regain their school’s reputation by doing well.

At Batesville Intermediate, selected students competed Friday in the “MCT Bowl,” which challenged them with questions from the practice test.

“The kids are nervous but excited,” said Goodgame, the BIS teacher. “They’ve worked hard all year.”