Three States in New England To Produce Common Tests

By Lynn Olson — May 26, 2004 4 min read
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New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont have agreed to produce joint reading and mathematics tests in grades 3-8 to meet the assessment requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The New England Common Assessment Program will be the first of its kind that spans core subjects and grades across states, although other state consortia are working to devise tests for English-language learners and students with disabilities. (“States Scramble to Rewrite Language-Proficiency Exams,” Dec. 4, 2002.)

The assessments, which also include a writing test in grades 5 and 8, will be designed and administered for a little more than $6 million a year, under contracts with Measured Progress, a Dover, N.H.-based testing company. The exams will be field-tested this coming fall and be given to all students in grades 3-8 beginning in the 2005-06 school year.

“Basically, there’s a sense that there’s a significant savings by doing this,” said Stuart R. Kahl, the president and chief executive officer of Measured Progress. “It truly is economical to join forces. I suspect that’s particularly true for smaller states with less resources.”

Beyond the cost savings, however, the three states share a commitment to devising better testing systems that more effectively link state, local, and classroom-based measures of student learning.

“We’re all very focused on ensuring that we are not just creating a test to meet a federal requirement. That is not our goal,” said Richard H. Cate, the state superintendent of education in Vermont. “We really want to do something that gives back some value in terms of where our schools stand.”

Common Measures

State officials hope that by banding together they can share their expertise and cover most, if not all, of the testing costs related to the No Child Left Behind Act. By the 2005-06 school year, states must test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Beginning in 2007-08, they also must test students in science at least once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12.

Critics have asserted that the $400 million a year provided to upgrade state testing systems does not adequately cover those costs. The U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, estimated last spring that the money would cover state expenses, but only if states relied solely on multiple-choice questions.

In contrast, the tests being developed by the tri-state partnership will also include questions that ask students to construct their own responses.

“I think we’re sure to realize an efficiency,” said Nicholas C. Donahue, New Hampshire’s commissioner of education “In terms of the total costs, and whether we’ll have enough money,” he added, “it’s too soon to tell.”

“It’s a little tough to quantify,” agreed Mr. Cate. “The bottom line is that I think our total development costs will be very close to what it would have cost Vermont if we had done it alone,” he said.

The three states, and Maine, also are engaged in conversations about jointly designing the high school tests and are waiting to hear back from potential vendors.

To devise the new tests, the states had to agree on common grade-level expectations in reading, writing, and mathematics.

“The first good news is it turned out to be comparatively easy to get the standards agreement,” said Peter McWalters, the commissioner of education in Rhode Island.

“We’re going to get more testing of at least as good a quality, more perfectly aligned, more in-depth reporting, at a lower unit cost than any of us had had,” he said.

Mr. McWalters added that the comparative results will provide tremendous positive pressure to close achievement gaps.

‘About Time’

“I think it’s great,” said Theodor Rebarber, the president of AccountabilityWorks, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that has been advocating such arrangements. “It’s about time that somebody started doing that kind of work.”

In addition to cost advantages and savings for taxpayers, he argued, states potentially could produce tests of higher quality by sharing their expertise. But he and others acknowledged that it’s not always easy for states to make the compromises involved in working together.

“I think the reason you see so few states doing it is because each state has been on a 10-year or so trajectory of developing its own standards and its own assessments. And stopping midstream is particularly difficult,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that promotes standards-based education.

“Those states share a culture. They share geography. And they had standards that, in the first instance, were pretty close to each other,” he said. “So it made it easier to proceed in the direction that they did.”

Mr. Donahue said he could see collaborating in the future on other issues, such as professional development. “I’ve seen enough,” said the New Hampshire commissioner, “so that I would work on those things together in a heartbeat.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Three States in New England To Produce Common Tests


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