By Chris Kieffer
Mississippi’s switch to the Common Core State Standards also will bring a new type of testing – likely one that is computer-based and that uses fewer multiple-choice questions.
Yet as the state gets closer to providing its first tests based on the new standards – to be given during the 2014-15 school year – some leaders debate who should create those assessments.
Mississippi currently is among 17 states that belong to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a group of states working together to build a common test to measure how well students have mastered the skills required by the Common Core.
Other states in the group include Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee, among others. It also includes the District of Columbia.
The power lies in the strength of the collaboration between the states, said James Mason, director of student assessment with the Mississippi Department of Education.
“It is like the Major League Baseball All-Star team,” Mason said. “The Atlanta Braves can field a good team, but when you get to the All-Star Game, you get the best players from the National League, and it is a pretty formidable group.
“When we link with other states – Louisiana and Tennessee in the South or Massachusetts which arguably has the strongest assessments in the nation – when you bring all of those resources together, it will provide a quality assessment it would take years and countless expenses for us to develop on our own, if we could ever do it.”
Mississippi has had significant input within the consortium. Mason serves as chairman of the state leaders on the consortium’s executive committee, and the MDE’s Vincent Segalini is chairman of its language arts committee. Segalini is the MDE’s English/ language arts specialist.
State Superintendent Carey Wright is on the PARCC governing board, and about 60 educators and administrators from the state have been engaged in the work at different levels, Mason said.
“All states and particularly Mississippi are well represented and deeply embedded in this work,” Mason said.
New kind of test
PARCC promises a “next-generation” assessment that would move away from the current model that relies heavily on multiple-choice questions. Educators have long complained that multiple choice doesn’t measure complex thinking and encourages guessing and testing strategies.
Their test would have some multiple choice but also would include open-ended questions, multiple-part questions and those with several correct answers. It would use more written assignments in which students would have to read complex passages, answer a question and cite text to justify their arguments. It also would be computer-based, allowing for more interactions and project-based questions.
“We use the phrase a test worth taking, at least worthy of our students,” Mason said. “It is one that will be far more engaging for our students.”
However, six initial PARCC states – including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Oklahoma – have withdrawn from the group for different reasons. Florida has ceased being the group’s fiscal agent and is expected to leave the consortium too.
Some states cite cost, which will be $29.50 per test, Mason said, and will include a writing test at every grade level. Mississippi only spends $17 on its current third- to eighth-grade tests, he said, but on the three tests that include writing – fourth-grade, seventh-grade and 10th-grade – the cost is more than $40. Plus, he said, the new performance-based tests will be an improvement.
The state also would save on its high school tests, he said.
“At grades three through eight, we are going to spend a little more, but we think it is spending in the right direction,” he said. “You want tests to drive instruction. What better thing do you want to drive that than the writing, critical thinking and problem solving you do in a performance-based assessment?”
Alabama opted to instead use the ACT Aspire Series, which measures college and career readiness, beginning in third grade.
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said he’d like to see Mississippi do the same, noting ACT is more “tried and true” than PARCC.
“ACT was focused on being college-ready before anyone was involved with PARCC,” Loden said.
“Students in our school can take college- and career-ready tests designed by PARCC and won’t receive a scholarship. Our students at Tupelo High School who take the ACT and do well can get scholarship money, and that says a lot about the credibility of the ACT.”
Loden’s concern with PARCC, he said, is that the style of the test will drive instruction, which could lead to a loss of local control.
“If we go to that standardized assessment, at the national level, then we have less control,” he said. “Assessments really guide instruction.”
Booneville Superintendent Todd English, Itawamba County Superintendent Michael Nanney, Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell and Amory Superintendent Tony Cook each said they would support the use of the ACT, especially in high school. Some said, however, that educators may feel better about PARCC when the consortium releases a sample test in the coming months.
“Students need a goal at the end that is in their interest,” Nanney said. “I believe nothing would do that better than to have the ACT at the end of the process. ACT is a score we use, and it is a score colleges use.”
Rachel Canter, the executive director of Mississippi First – an organization that advocates for education reforms – said the limitation of the ACT is that it is developed by a company, rather than by states.
“ACT is its own company that has been around for a long time and done its own thing for a long time and is saying its stuff is aligned,” Canter said. “PARCC is created specifically for Common Core. It is a consortium of states that has led the work.”
As Mississippi moves toward the new tests, in whichever form it chooses, Loden said he hopes the state also can begin to move toward a reduction in the number of exams given to students. The federal No Child Left Behind law currently dictates students be tested in third- through eighth-grades and in certain high school courses.
Loden said schools can give their own tests annually to measure student performance, but he’d like to see fewer high-stakes tests, perhaps only every other year.
“I believe with the old model we have over assessed children, and with Core, we will continue to do that,” he said. “That is one of the disappointments of Core for me.”