Mississippi keeps history exam, despite calls to end it

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Mississippi’s state Board of Education is keeping the state’s U.S. history exam, despite months of pressure from teachers and others to cut testing.

The board voted unanimously on Thursday to keep the test, one of four that public school students must keep in high school.

A testing task force in August had recommended that the state do away with the test. It’s the only state test that’s not required by federal law.

“It was extremely disheartening that board members placed so much confidence in a staff recommendation over the recommendations of the task force, commission, and multiple surveys of practitioners throughout the state that favored elimination of the assessment,” Mississippi Professional Educators, the state’s largest teachers group, wrote in a message to members.

High school students formerly had to pass the history test, plus exams in English, algebra and biology to graduate. Now, there are alternate routes to graduate, but some Mississippi students still don’t earn a diploma because they don’t qualify for any of the routes.

State Superintendent Carey Wright had recommended that the board keep the exam.

“Our position is that the board should not eliminate the U.S. history assessment,” Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford told board members Thursday.

Proponents of keeping the exam argued that funding for and emphasis on history teaching could be cut and teachers wouldn’t be held accountable for teaching the state’s history standards if the test ended. But a plurality of more than 100 public commenters over the summer favored eliminating the test

Vanderford noted the state has a new history exam that will be administered this year. She said she hoped that the new exam would mollify some critics.

’Hopefully the design of the new assessment will change some of the mindset that the U.S. history is nothing but a reading comprehension assessment,” she said.

The history test also counts in the grading system under which high schools and districts are assigned A-to-F grades. A task force had proposed doubling the weight on the state’s high school biology exam to replace points that history was assigned in the system. There would have also had to be changes to graduation requirements. The federal government would have had to approve the changes.

“Once again testing lobbyists and bureaucrats do what’s best for themselves and not students,” wrote Rep. Tom Miles, a Forest Democrat, on Facebook. Miles wants Mississippi to scrap the four high school exams and replace them with the ACT college test. Critics question whether such a substitution is feasible.

The test has also been unpopular because it’s typically taken at the end of junior year. That means a student who doesn’t pass has fewer opportunities to retake it, unlike courses that are typically offered in the freshman or sophomore year. However, Vanderford said the history test has the second-highest pass rate among the four exams and that only 33 students last year failed to graduate because they only failed to not pass the history exam.

The state is paying testing company DRC of Maple Grove, Minnesota, $2.8 million to write and grade the history test, the high school biology test and science tests for fifth and eighth graders.

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