Board votes to fund Common Core-aligned standardized tests

schoolJACKSON — The Board of Education has approved spending about $8.4 million on standardized tests aligned with the new Common Core state standards.

The board voted May 16 for the first year of what could be a four-year contract with a division of the British firm Pearson, PLC. The money is Mississippi’s share of the cost of a multistate testing group called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Common Core is a set of standards designed to standardize student learning. Mississippi and 44 other states signed on, although opponents have attacked the effort as a federal takeover of education. The federal government gave money to PARCC and another multistate group to help develop tests.

Mississippi and some other states have deployed PARCC tests as a pilot project during the current school year. Local and state school officials are awaiting the roll-out of the full new testing program in spring 2015.

Test scores typically dip any time a new standardized test is introduced. But James Mason, Mississippi’s state testing director, warned the state Board of Education that the PARCC tests will be “probably twice as hard” as current tests.

New Mexico officials led the selection process, with Pearson ultimately the only applicant. Pearson has been Mississippi’s main testing contractor for the current state tests, but Mason said that didn’t give them an advantage with the multistate group.

The American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based testing group, has filed suit in New Mexico to overturn the contract award, arguing the process was set up to help Pearson.

Mason expressed confidence in Pearson, describing the company as “very open, very transparent,” and noting it had lined up a number of other testing companies as subcontractors, including the Educational Testing Service, WestEd, and Measured Progress.

Mason said the cost of the tests in grades 3-8 — $24 per student on computer and $33 per student on paper — came in lower than estimates. Mississippi will pay $12.50 per Algebra I or English II end-of-course high school test on computer, and pay $18 per student on paper.

Originally, all Common Core tests were supposed to be administered on computer, but Mason said school districts will decide whether they will be handled by computer or on paper. He estimated half the tests would be given online in Mississippi in the first year.

“Most people want to go online as much as they can because it’s more efficient and kids find it more engaging,” he said.

Mason said the more students who take the test nationwide, the lower the per-student cost eventually will be.

In recent months, some states have pulled out of the PARCC group, driven in part by political opposition to Common Core.

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