Last week, stories on testing in public schools dominated education news nationally. On October 24, 2015, President Obama released a video on testing on his Facebook page and called for a 2% nationwide cap on the amount of school time devoted to testing. Two days later, the Council for Great City Schools published a report showing that students in their sample of 66 large urban districts spent an average of 1.8% of instructional time per grade per year taking tests, whether district- or state-mandated. The two events added to the growing sound and fury over testing nationwide.
Here in Mississippi, the debate over testing has grown hotter over the past year as well with more and more local voices decrying testing. As an organization full of former teachers, Mississippi First understands the important role that testing plays in instruction. Teachers use assessments to determine how well students have learned material, what they still struggle with, and which students might need additional support to master concepts. Parents and students can use assessment results to determine how much progress they are making and what students might need to focus on. Statewide assessments are necessary to inform the public of the quality of our education system and to evaluate the effectiveness of various programs and reforms. The challenge for schools and policymakers is to find the sweet spot of enough testing to accomplish worthwhile educational aims without detracting from the overall learning experience of students.
But how much time do Mississippi students really spend taking tests? And how much time is the right amount? This fall, Mississippi First is working to answer those questions through a new research project.
Our preliminary research reveals that students in Mississippi public schools take a number of tests from the time they enter Kindergarten until they exit high school. Tests fall into three broad categories: teacher-created tests, district-mandated tests, and state-mandated standardized tests (including the ACT).
- Teacher-Created Tests: Perhaps the most familiar form of testing, teacher-created tests are tests that individual teachers or groups of teachers in a school would write to gauge how well students have learned material taught in class. These types of tests could be as simple as a short, five-question test at the end of a class period to check for understanding or as complex as a long test at the end of a unit or semester. They could be multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, essay response, or task-related assessments, and they may occur at any point in the school year. Teacher-created tests have existed as long as schooling, and there is no easy way to gauge how much time students spend on teacher-created tests, as the time varies across teachers, even within the same school or district. Usually, districts have policies requiring teachers to record a minimum number of test grades, but teachers may count projects towards test grades as well as paper-and-pencil tests. Beyond recording a minimum number of test grades per year, teachers have wide discretion in the number and type of teacher-created tests that they administer.
- District-Mandated Tests: District-mandated tests have gained prominence in American schools over the last two decades. These tests—which may be written by a district curriculum coordinator or may be a purchased standardized test—are tests that a district has selected and chosen to implement in all of its schools for every child at a particular grade level or in particular subjects. District-mandated tests might be used on a specific schedule such as weekly, every nine weeks, or beginning, middle, and end. Some district-mandated tests are tied to a specific curriculum program, such as a computer-based remedial program, while others are used with whatever curriculum the district currently uses. Of all the testing categories, district-mandated testing has the most variants and is probably the least understood by parents and the public. District-mandated testing, because of its variety, may take up a substantial amount of instructional time per subject per student or it may not, depending on the district.
- State Standardized Tests: State standardized testing began nationally in the 1980s with minimum competency tests designed to ensure that students graduating from high school had attained a basic level of knowledge. These tests were phased out in the late 1990s/early 2000s and replaced with more rigorous high school subject area tests and more comprehensive state testing programs in elementary school through high school. State standardized tests that every child must take are the basis of the state accountability system, although not all required state standardized tests are part of the state accountability system. Today, students in Mississippi take a state-mandated standardized test in every grade, as shown in Figure 1. State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright estimates that students spend approximately 1.6% of instructional time, or 3 days per grade per year, taking state tests. This estimate is comparable to both the new Council for Great City Schools report and a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress, which found average testing time in 14 districts in 7 states to be about 1.6% of the school year. The tests Mississippi public school students take are as follows:
a. Literacy-Based Promotion Act Testing: In grades K-3, students take the Mississippi K-3 Assessment Support System (MKAS2) at Kindergarten-entry and third grade exit as required by the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, also known as the third grade reading “gate.” Schools can choose to use MKAS2 as their required literacy screener administered at the beginning, middle, and end of every school year in grades K-3 as well. (A literacy screener measures whether children are experiencing difficulty in learning to read.) Otherwise, students would take the MKAS2 only at Kindergarten-entry and third grade exit and a different screener for the middle and end of Kindergarten; the beginning, middle, and end of first and second grade; and the beginning and middle of third grade. Schools designated as “literacy target” schools are required to use the MKAS2 for their literacy screener. Originally, the MKAS2 was meant to serve as the “backup” assessment for passing the third grade gate, but due to instability in the state testing program (the transition from MCT2 to PARCC to Questar), the MKAS2 will be used through 2015-2016 as the primary assessment for third grade gate decisions.
b. State Annual Testing: Students in grades 3-8 take an annual, end-of-year test in English Language Arts and math. In 2014-2015, Mississippi used the PARCC exam, which featured both an end-of-year exam and an additional test called the Performance-Based Assessment. These two assessments will not be administered again in Mississippi. In 2015-2016, Mississippi will use the Questar test, which is only an end-of-year test. Students in grades 5 and 8 take an end-of-year test in science called the Mississippi Science Test. In grades 9-12, students take end-of-course exams in Algebra I, English II, US History, and Biology I; these exams are factored into students’ grades for the courses, which students must pass to graduate. (Students who take Algebra I as eighth graders take the exam in the eighth grade. For these students, they must take both the eighth grade math test and the Algebra I test in the same year.)
c. ACT: Mississippi now administers the ACT to every high school junior in the state.
This preliminary review left us with a lot of unanswered questions, particularly about district-mandated tests and the time schools spend doing test-related activities outside of actual test administration. Before we can make policy recommendations about testing, we realized we needed a better understanding of what testing looks like from the classroom level across Mississippi. Our search for more information gave rise to Mississippi First’s new testing research project which will take an in-depth look at testing practices in four Mississippi school districts. The districts, which will remain anonymous in the final report, are spread across Mississippi and represent both high- and low-performing districts. Our methodology includes district surveys, testing documentation (such as testing calendars) collection, and teacher focus groups. Mississippi First has already completed data collection at two of the four districts and expects to complete data collection at the other two districts by the end of November 2015.
Once the research concludes, we will use it to make informed policy recommendations to education leaders and policymakers in the state, including district superintendents, state education officials, and legislators. Already, the results are fascinating, and we believe the project will lead to meaningful and realistic recommendations. The complete report is scheduled for release in January 2016.
To donate to the testing project, go to http://www.mississippifirst.org/donate/. To request that Mississippi First add your district to future project phases, send an email to MacKenzie Stroh Hines at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Testing Research.”
 This does not include time devoted to test prep, only time students spend actually taking tests.
 We focus on tests that every child in a particular grade might take, as opposed to tests administered to only a subset of students, such as tests for English language learners, or that might be voluntary, such as AP tests in high school.