JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Nearly half of Mississippi high school students met or exceeded expectations in English last year, while about 27 percent did so in algebra I, according to test results released Thursday.
Those are the first findings from Mississippi's only administration of a multi-state test meant to measure achievement under new academic standards.
The results are a big drop from the 2014 state tests, when 83 percent passed the previous Mississippi-only algebra test, with 76 percent rating proficient or advanced. In English, 72 percent of students passed in 2014, with 56 percent were rated proficient or advanced.
The drop was expected, though. State Superintendent Carey Wright said standards on Mississippi's old tests were too low.
"Our cut scores are not going to be below proficient," she said.
Last spring was the only time Mississippi will administer the test designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of Colleges and Careers. In 2016, Mississippi will begin giving a test custom-written by Questar Assessment.
Wright said Mississippi students did "extremely well" compared to results released so far by PARCC states in English language arts for sophomores, and were roughly in line with what other states have released in algebra I.
"Our children are just as capable or more capable as children in any other state in the nation," Wright said.
From lowest to highest, PARCC's score levels are described as not meeting expectations, partially meeting expectations, approaching expectations, meeting expectations and exceeding expectations. There was wide variation among Mississippi's 145 school districts. On the bottom end, Clarksdale and Yazoo City had no students who met or exceeded expectations in algebra, while at the top end, more than two-thirds of students reached those levels in Gulfport, Forrest County and Enterprise.
"There were some pleasant surprises in there for some of the districts, and it wasn't as bad overall as I feared it would be," said Rachel Canter. She leads Mississippi First, a nonprofit group that advocates for education improvements and has been critical in the past of low standards. "I think it does show there are some school districts that are doing what they need to be doing."
The tests also serve as end-of-course exams for students taking those subjects. Wright said the department decided, without a vote by the Board of Education, that a 3 would serve as a passing score for graduation purposes. That means roughly 40 percent of all students, or 17,000 statewide, failed the algebra test, while 27 percent failed the English test.
Formerly, students had to pass four subject area tests to graduate, but in 2014, the Board of Education approved alternative paths to a diploma. This year, students can also average their scores across one or more tests to create a composite score. Thus, students who failed the algebra exam could still graduate if they had done well enough on the biology, English and history exams.
Spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said students who don't meet other graduation options will be able to try again on the state's new exams, but won't retake the PARCC tests.
The state is preparing letters for school districts to send to parents explaining the new test results, as well as information for teachers. Wright and state assessment director J.P. Beaudoin said that even though Mississippi won't give the PARCC again, they want teachers to use the results to help identify strengths and weaknesses of individual students and help them improve.
PARCC test results for grades 3-8 will be released Dec. 17, and A-to-F school accountability grades will released next year.