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2012 February 20 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Testing Help for Miss. Students Working

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Concerted efforts to make sure Mississippi high school seniors pass state tests needed to graduate appear to be paying off.

The number of letters state Department of Education officials sent home warning parents their children were in danger of not graduating has fallen more than 42 percent from last year.

The state Department of Education in November sent letters to the parents of 1,889 seniors who still need to pass at least one of the state subject area tests.

Last February, similar letters went out to parents of 3,295 students, about a third of them in special education.

Students’ failure to pass one or more of the state tests is the most common reason for not meeting graduation requirements.

That was almost true for Jane Ross’ daughter, Beth, who graduated last year from Calhoun City High School.

Beth is profoundly deaf and has a cochlear implant. In spite of working to overcome a language delay, she earned top grades, Jane Ross said. Beth was a cheerleader and played sports. She also played in the band in junior high school. She was voted “most beautiful” last year.

Jane Ross said her daughter excelled at everything she tried except one test.

When she first took the English II test, Beth was less than 10 points shy of a passing grade. On her second try, Beth missed the mark by one point. The margin, and Beth’s frustration, grew with each subsequent try.

“It was so very, very important to us that she get that diploma,” Jane Ross said of herself and her husband, Perry. “I knew that without that, she’s already got a tremendous battle, just with the disability. But to limit her by not having a high school diploma, which she deserved with that high grade-point average ... she had earned it.”

With the state tests, most students still are tripped up by English II, particularly reading comprehension and the grammar, said James Mason, the state Department of Education’s director of student assessment.

At schools across the state, tutoring is offered before and after school so students can get help in the subjects in which they struggle. Some schools offer remediation during the day for students struggling with the standardized tests. Students who don’t pass the tests and are unable to graduate can continue retaking the tests.

Those who have failed three times by one point “can apply to demonstrate mastery through an alternative assessment process that utilizes a portfolio of student work,” Mason said. He said he knows of one or two students who have qualified and chosen that method.

With Beth, “we had done everything possible to prepare her for this test,” Jane Ross said. “She was tutored there in school, she was tutored after school, she went to extra speech classes at Ole Miss.”

Beth also took the English II class a second time at another school in the district. By December 2010, Beth had taken the test six times.

Beth had asked that no one walk in and out of the room as she took the test because it was too distracting. But an auditor walked in and sat behind her, sometimes making noise, Jane Ross said. Furious, Ross said she likely spoke harshly to school officials about what happened. The family prepared for the worst.

That January, Beth began preparing to take the English II test a seventh time. Then she learned she had earned the exact score needed to pass.

Beth is now enrolled in community college and making straight A’s, Jane Ross said. Jane Ross admitted she is bitter from her daughter’s experience with the tests.

The goal behind battling for her daughter, Jane Ross said, “was to get her to a point with a diploma, get her to college, get her educated so that she can support herself and be a taxpayer instead of sitting somewhere drawing a check.

“I didn’t want her to be a burden to taxpayers. That wasn’t going to be good for her or for anybody else.”

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