Assessment

A District Is Happy It Made This Standardized Testing Change

By Alyson Klein — June 05, 2023 4 min read
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Does changing standardized tests really influence what and how much students learn?

One Mississippi district thinks so—and was willing to jump through a series of federal and state bureaucratic hoops to switch to a set of tests its leader and teachers think will help students become stronger, more independent learners.

The Corinth school district is a rural, racially diverse district in the northeast corner of Mississippi where about two thirds of its 2,500 students are from low-income households.

Lee Childress, Corinth’s superintendent, who has led the district for more than 20 years, tasked a group of teachers about a decade ago with finding a new curriculum—and potentially a new set of tests—for high school students.

They eventually identified Cambridge International as the solution. It is similar to the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs, though it is more commonly used in the United Kingdom than the United States.

The district initially considered using the Cambridge courses and tests with a select group of its most advanced students. But “as our teachers reviewed the materials, they had a very strong conviction that if it’s right for one group of children, it’s right for all children,” Childress said.

Unlike other assessment programs, teachers liked many of Cambridge’s tests because they allow for multiple correct answers, as long as students are able to cite evidence from a text to back up their approach to determine the answer.

“We thought that would make our children more independent learners, that we would teach them the content, but we would also teach them the process to become better readers, to become independent thinkers,” Childress said. “They could make interpretations. They could make judgments. They could have challenging ideas that might be different.”

What’s more, much of the coursework encourages students to work in groups or teams, Childress added. “So, you’re teaching collaboration. You’re teaching teamwork, and that’s one of the things that we hear from our industries is that students need to learn how to work as a team.”

The problem? Even though the district had switched over to this new way of learning, it still needed to require its high schoolers to take Mississippi’s state assessments, along with Cambridge’s subject tests. That ‘double-testing’ has been going on for about six years.

That “was a pain, but it was not as much a pain for me as it was a pain for our teachers,” Childress said. They “were teaching different processes, because the process to take an open-ended assessment with short answers and essay-type questions is different from preparing the student to take a multiple-choice” test, he said.

Solving a testing problem

To solve that problem, the district decided in 2018 to traverse a series of bureaucratic hurdles to make Cambridge its one and only high school test. That meant taking advantage of little-used flexibility in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows school districts to substitute a locally chosen, nationally recognized test for their state assessment at the high school level.

The option was included in part to help schools cut down on the number of tests students take each year, at a time when anti-testing fervor was running high, and many parents were opting to allow their kids to skip state assessments.

In 2015, when the law passed, most high schoolers considering going to college took the ACT or the SAT anyway, so allowing that exam to stand in for the state test could arguably limit testing since students would only have to sit through one exam.

Proponents of the change hoped students who didn’t consider themselves college material might change their minds if they did better than they expected on these college entrance tests.

The leeway was expected to draw plenty of takers. But nearly a decade after the law’s passage, few states and districts have taken advantage of it.

That may be partly because many colleges have made tests like the SAT and ACT optional or stopped asking for them altogether, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit that advocates for less standardized testing.

And even though ESSA granted this flexibility, it didn’t make switching tests easy for districts. For instance, any alternate college entrance test must meet the U.S. Department of Education’s rigorous peer review requirements. Districts must also seek state permission to get the flexibility.

In addition to Mississippi, just three states—North Dakota, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—have applied to allow their districts to use a college entrance exam instead of a state test. North Dakota initially used the flexibility to give districts a choice of offering the ACT or the state exam but will require the state exam after next school year. No district in West Virginia has taken advantage of the flexibility, a spokeswoman said. A spokesman for Oklahoma’s state department of education did not respond to multiple requests for information on whether districts in the Sooner State have used the leeway.

Corinth worked with the Mississippi department of education and Cambridge to get the federal greenlight for its subject-matter tests in English/language arts, biology, math, and U.S. history, which came through earlier this school year.

So far, Childress is pleased with the results of the new curriculum and tests. Out of a senior class of 137, 21 students earned Cambridge’s rigorous AICE diploma, for passing a certain number and types of exams at the program’s highest levels. Another 18 students have taken five or more AICE level classes and their related tests. Many other students have taken at least three AICE level classes and their related assessments.

“What we’ve shown is all students can be successful in this program,” Childress said. “Whether it’s AP, IB, or Cambridge, all students can be successful.”

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