In 2001, Mark D. Musick tried to set up a joint Algebra 1 exam among 12 member states of the Southern Regional Education Board, over which he then presided. It failed.
“What quickly became apparent was that by the time SREB convened the meeting, states were in different places” on Algebra 1 courses and exams, said Donna Watts, Maryland’s mathematics coordinator.
In contrast, she points to a collaboration emerging from the American Diploma Project, a coalition of 29 states that are working to align high school standards, curricula, assessments, and accountability systems with the demands of college and work. From the beginning of the American Diploma Project in 2005, Ms. Watts said, a common goal was to add Algebra 2 to the list of high school graduation requirements and ensure the course was sufficiently challenging by devising an end-of-course exam for the subject.
Now, nine of those 29 states—Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—have settled on giving the same assessment. The announcement comes as policymakers and educators across the country are looking at ways of addressing students’ weak or declining performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and in college, despite the increasing numbers of high schoolers who score well on state tests and take high-level courses. (“Students Taking More Demanding Courses,” Feb. 28, 2007.)
“It may just be a timing issue,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department. “Now is the time that states are looking at high school offerings.”
New England Accord
Also spurring such initiatives are the increasing calls of many policymakers and business leaders and some educators to adopt national academic standards.
“The [Algebra 2] test represents a promising new model for multistate reform efforts at a time when the overall lackluster achievement of high school students has fueled debates about the creation of national standards and extending No Child Left Behind Act to high schools,” said a statement released earlier this month by Achieve, the Washington-based education policy group that supports the American Diploma Project.
Participants: Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island
Cost: $15 to $25 per student
Number of students: 200,000 in the first year
First administration: May 2008
Producer: Pearson Educational Measurement
Testing time: Two 45-minute segments
This venture may be larger, but it is not the first testing collaboration among states.
In fall 2005, three New England states—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—teamed up on reading and mathematics assessments for grades 3-8 and writing assessments for grades 5 and 8. The testing agreement grew out of a collaboration by state schools chiefs in the region—financed by grants from the U.S. Department of Education—to address the requirements of the NCLB law.
Participants: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
Cost: $7 million contract for five years
Number of students: 470,000
First administration: October 2005
Producer: Measured Progress
Subject areas: Reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, writing in grades 5-8; science assessment in grades 4, 8, and 11 to be added in May 2008
Source: Education Week
“It’s absolutely the most positive thing I can ever imagine,” Todd Flaherty, a deputy commissioner of education in Rhode Island, said of the agreement, which is known as the New England Common Assessment Program. He characterized the enterprise as a “tremendous way” to work with other states on setting expectations for students.
The exams, which are based on common grade-level expectations fashioned by the states, are given during a single testing window in the fall. Next month, states will administer a pilot test for science in grades 4, 8, and 11, with the hope of rolling out those tests in May of next year.
Carrie Parker, a research scientist with the Education Development Center, a nonprofit research group based in Newton, Mass., who worked with the states on the common assessments, said the fact that the states had relatively similar expectations for students helped the development of the tests.
Moreover, Ms. Parker said, the assessments are a “much better product than [the states] could have come up with on their own.”
Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, and others involved in the Algebra 2 effort also characterized the development of their test’s content as a “remarkably smooth process”—once policymakers were committed to the project. Achieve spent nearly a year establishing a common level of understanding among the state chiefs about the need for a rigorous end- of-course exam before bringing the state math specialists together to write the frameworks for the test, he said.
Such a level of commitment by education policymakers would have helped the SREB undertaking, said Ken James, Arkansas’ commissioner of education.
“I very much believe that [the SREB project didn’t work] because the chiefs weren’t involved in the discussion,” he said.
The one complication in the latest project, those involved said, was juggling the states’ different testing schedules to determine the optimal number of versions and testing windows to offer.
Ohio procured the Algebra 2 exam from Pearson Educational Measurement, an assessment company based in Iowa City, Iowa, on behalf of the group of states. Under the agreement, Pearson will devise one online and five paper-and-pencil forms of the test for each school year—including an optional seven sections for each version in such subject areas as trigonometry, data and statistics, and probability—to be given during two testing windows. Each test will consist of two 45-minute segments.
According to officials from Achieve, the cost of the test will depend on the number of students who end up taking it each year, but should range from $15 to $25 per student. They estimate that more than 200,000 students will take the exam across the nine states when it is first administered in May 2008.
Several other states also have expressed interest in joining the nine states and buying tests from Pearson, according to Achieve, a step that will be possible under the company’s contract.
But, “like a lot of other things that start, people want to see how it will bear out” before they commit to participating, Mr. James said.
Voluntary in Most Places
Observers also will be watching to see how states use the Algebra 2 test.
For example, beginning in the 2009-10 school year, Arkansas will require students to pass three end-of-course exams—in Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry—to receive a high school diploma, while the test will be voluntary in most of the other states.
Policymakers hope the voluntary nature of the test will guide discussions between administrators and teachers about course content and help educators monitor student progress. And if the test is taken before a student’s senior year, a poor score would highlight the areas the student needs to work on before going to college.
“Our intent is just for this to be a starting point” for creating tests in other areas, said Mitchell D. Chester, Ohio’s assistant superintendent for policy and accountability.
Other states also hope that the Algebra 2 exam will be the beginning of more testing ventures between states.
“We’re looking at it as a large pilot for end-of-course exams,” said Ms. Gross of Kentucky, which requires students to take, but not necessarily pass, exams in geometry and Algebra 1 and 2.
Education policymakers also hope that higher education institutions will use the exam, since college-placement tests often do not accurately align with what students learned in high school or are expected to learn in college, they say. Officials in some states hope that colleges will use it for placement or to determine whether students will be able to enroll in credit-bearing courses.
Wes Bruce, the director of assessment for the Indiana education department, said the placement issue could serve as an “additional incentive for students.”
Achieve does not have a standard formula or recommendation for how states, districts, or schools should use it, according to Mr. Cohen.
“What we’re trying to reinforce is that every student who takes Algebra 2 should take the test in order for the states to meet their goal,” he said.
Mr. Musick, who also served as a chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which set policy for NAEP, warns educators against giving the test to students without having it—at the very least—affect students’ final grade in the course.
“When you give students a test and there’s nothing at stake,” he said, “you’re not getting your students’ best effort.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as States Working Together on Development of Tests