Changes loom for state school tests

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Mississippi schools will not be measured by a single high-stakes test much longer.
The state’s transition to new national curriculum standards also will lead to a dramatic change in the way it tests its public school students.
The change could mean that several tests will be given throughout the year and that those assessments will be taken on various technological devices.
Schools would then be measured by a combination of those exams, according to a plan being developed by several states. Mississippi’s elementary- and middle-schools are currently ranked based on the results from a single English and math test their students take in the spring. High school rankings are based on tests students take upon completing four courses.
The change is expected to come during the 2014-15 school year as Mississippi adopts the Common Core State Standards, curriculum guidelines developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Mississippi is among 45 states that have agreed to use the new standards.
The states have split into two groups to develop separate tests based on those standards. Mississippi is a member of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, with 22 states, including Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts, New York and New Mexico, among others.
According to PARCC’s current plan, schools in its member states would take five tests, Mississippi Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said. One test would be given at the beginning of the year to give schools early data on students’ strengths and weaknesses and another would be given midway through the year to measure progress they have made.
Two more tests given closer to the end of the year then would be combined to determine school rankings. One of those would test them on the knowledge they’ve learned during the year and would contain short-answer and multiple choice questions.
The other would be project-based and would ask students to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned to solve real-world problems.
For example, they may have to do independent research to find sources that support an argument in the article they have been given. Or they may need to determine the area of an irregularly shaped soybean field and determine how much fertilizer it will require.
“It really causes students to demonstrate they have a deep conceptual understanding in addition to needing to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned,” House said. “It won’t just be pick the answer and fill in the bubble.”
A final test would be in speaking and listening skills and would be given by classroom teachers. House said that test is still in its developmental stages and that it will likely utilize a rubric.
PARCC is still developing those tests and is not ready to release sample questions, House said, noting she hopes it is able to do so sometime this fall.
“We don’t have enough information, but we are getting closer and closer to showing exactly the kind of item you’re going to see on the test,” she said.
The plan is for students to take their tests on various technological devices, House said, in order to allow schools to get the results much more quickly. This will be important particularly for the early-year tests, which are designed to guide teachers in what they need to teach during the rest of the course.
The key will be to make the tests flexible so that they can be taken on a variety of devices, House said. PARCC has worked with technology companies to ensure test security, she said.
“We need to get people to think differently,” she said. “I’m a baby boomer and most of us have been worried about cellphones, laptops, devices and what students may do. The fact is, that is how these students learn. We need to figure out how to incorporate technology so it is not just an add on, but it is a feature of what they do in their learning environment.”
Districts will be challenged to find enough devices for students to use, which is why flexibility will be important, House said. Also, tests will likely be staggered at different times.
“We may have 30 tablet devices rolling around school depending on who needs them,” House said. “It will require coordination and scheduling, but principals are used to that.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com