JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — State officials said Thursday that a record 83 percent of Mississippi seniors graduated on time from high school in 2016-2017, even as some lawmakers demand an end to subject tests that affect whether students can graduate.
State Superintendent Carey Wright said the higher rate is just one measure showing Mississippi schools are improving.
"Are we where we want to be nationally? No," said Wright. "Are the trend lines headed in the right direction? Absolutely."
The nationwide graduation rate is 84 percent, according to the most recent data.
Mississippi Department of Education officials said graduation rates rose for all groups of students, with African Americans at 79.3 percent and children from lower income families at 79.9 percent. The graduation rate for children with disabilities, a dismal 28 percent in 2015, has risen to 36 percent.
About 20 percent of students now graduate without passing end-of-course exams in English II, algebra I, biology and United States history, according to previous figures released by the department, which could be contributing to higher graduation rates.
Passing all four tests was required until 2014, in an effort to make sure students were learning the basics no matter where they attend school. But superintendents and lawmakers pressured the state to ditch them. To block lawmakers from killing the tests entirely, the state Board of Education voted in 2014 to allow students to graduate if they could show alternate measures of proficiency. They include scores of 17 or better on parts of the ACT college test, grades of C or better in a college course the student took while in high school, or certain scores on military entrance or career technical exams, combined with a career certification.
At the same time those changes were made, Mississippi's graduation began improving, rising from 74.5 percent of students in the Class of 2014 earning a diploma over four years to 83 percent now.
Right now, students can also pass if they fail a subject-area test but had high class grades, or get high enough scores on the other three tests. Beginning next year, the subject area test will count for 25 percent of the student's grade in the applicable course. Students whose regular grades are average or better will be able to fail the tests and still pass courses. However, some low-performing students who get bad scores on the tests could still be blocked from graduating.
Rep. Tom Miles, a Forest Democrat, inserted an amendment in House Bill 1592 on Tuesday saying "a student who fails to achieve a passing score on an end-of-course test may not be prohibited from graduating from high school" if they finish all the required courses with passing grades. The amendment could get stripped out by the Senate.
Wright on Thursday said the state needs to keep the tests, as Miles' amendment notes, to meet federal testing requirements. She said the tests also need to carry weight because the state uses the scores as part of grading high schools and school districts.
"I'm hearing from superintendents that they're fearful that children are not going to take these exams seriously and it's going to negatively impact their accountability scores," Wright said.
An earlier version of this story has been corrected to change the years to '2016-2017' instead of '2017-2018' in the first sentence and summary.
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