CLINTON, Miss. — When Kerri Burnside’s fourth-graders solve a math problem, they know they must do more than simply find the right answer. In many problems, Burnside asks her students to explain their thinking with complete sentences, proper spelling, and conventions.
“It takes longer to grade now,” said Burnside on a recent morning in her classroom at Eastside Elementary. “You don’t have just an old-fashioned key.”
But the attention to writing, even in math, is becoming increasingly important, Burnside says. It is a big portion of what her students will be expected to do in 2015, when new, computerized math and English language arts exams are set to debut in Mississippi and more than 40 other states.
The exams are aligned to the new national Common Core education standards, which were adopted by Mississippi in 2010. The standards lay out grade level expectations that present more challenging content in early grades to build a better foundation for higher-level math and English classes. Like the standards themselves, the computerized tests are intended to demand more of students than previous exams. Instead of filling in the bubbles on answer sheets, students will perform a variety of tasks like dragging and dropping fractions on a number line, and filling in graphs. Even in math, students will write out their reasons for coming up with answers and will be graded on showing their work.
“We’re asking students to do far more complex work than we have ever done in a systemic way,” said James Mason, director of student assessment for the Mississippi Department of Education.
This spring, in anticipation of the new exams, Mississippi’s fifth- and eighth-grade students will take end-of- grade science tests on computers. Around the same time, more than 80,000 students in the state will field test the new national exams across all grade levels. Mason says the purpose is to validate the test items and make sure that there are no glitches with the test. But it is also meant to help districts test their technology and give students a chance to familiarize themselves with the new format.
In some states that adopted online testing years ago, like Virginia, experts and officials have cautioned that states may be too hasty in moving to online exams.
In the 2012-13 school year, chaos erupted when several states launched new online testing programs. Glitches halted testing for thousands of students in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Virginia. After a 2010 fiasco, Wyoming temporarily abandoned its online tests and later fired its education superintendent. Wyoming also sued the test provider, Pearson, which is the vendor for Mississippi’s new science exams.
The burden for schools
Although the early transition is meant to prevent similar situations from happening in Mississippi, the new exams have placed demands on budgets and resources. Many schools have struggled to buy computers and upgrade bandwidth without adequate state funding. In the past four years, Mississippi schools have been underfunded by an estimated $1 billion.
In the Lee County school districts in northeast Mississippi, superintendent Jimmy Weeks said in an interview earlier this year that upgrades could cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Technology-wise, we are not where we need to be for assessments,” Weeks said. Currently, the district has wireless service on nearly every campus, but it may not be sufficient for testing students. “Ten people can get on and it operates fine,” Weeks said. “Fifty people would shut the service down. It’d overwhelm the system.”
In the Western Line School District, which serves about 2,000 children in the eastern Mississippi Delta, superintendent Larry Green says the gradual shift to online tests has made the transition more manageable. The district, which had revenue of about $18 million in 2012, is working with cable companies to upgrade its bandwidth. “If we had to accommodate all the math, English, and social studies all at one time, we would need more computers,” Green said.
About 80 miles north in the Clarksdale Municipal School District, curriculum director Linda Downing says that the district has been slowly upgrading its technology for the past three years, and should have enough laptops for students to take exams. Downing said that the district also has good relationships with nearby districts, which could serve as a contingency plan. “If need be, push comes to shove, we would share.”
This year, in an attempt to help districts gauge their capacity to handle the tests, the state provided an online technology readiness tool. The tool allows each district to input various information about its current technology and then assesses whether the devices and bandwidth are sufficient for the exams. James Mason says that if a school has enough computers for half of its largest tested grade, it “should be fine.” And there are solutions for districts that are unprepared, like downloading the tests onto local servers, which reduces bandwidth requirements, or using paper tests. “We’re really optimistic that this is not going to be the huge, cataclysmic technology collapse that some folks are making it out to be,” Mason said.
But paper tests could add even more to the rising cost of the new exams. According to projections provided by the state Office of Student Assessment, in 2015, Mississippi will spend about $2.7 million more on the new exams for grades three through eight, than the state spent in 2012 to provide those grades with the old exams. Mason said paper exams could cost an additional 10 to 15 percent more. “We want to incentivize districts to get online,” he said. “So we’re trying to look at who is going to actually bear that cost.”
Regardless of readiness, all districts will be faced with logistical demands when the tests roll out. Unlike Mississippi’s old tests, which were generally given to all students in the state on the same day, the new assessments will be split into two components. The first, a performance-based exam, will require students to write and interact with the technology. The second portion will present items in a more traditional, multiple-choice format. Each component will have about a 20-day window, during which schools can decide when and how to rotate students through the tests. Students will take the first portion in the middle of March or early April, and the second in early May.
Mason says that while the content may be more rigorous, he does not anticipate the technology posing a challenge for students. “I think the kids are going to prove very adept,” he said. “There is uneasiness in lots of different places because the types of things we’re asking kids to do is more rigorous … But what we’re doing is asking students to do the types of things they need to do to be successful, whether it’s in college, or whether its in the workplace.”