Missouri's standardized tests could get a facelift next school year to deliver more in-depth data about each student.
If a funding request is approved, Missouri Assessment Program tests would be given online for all grade levels starting in the 2014-15 school year. The difficulty of the test questions would shift based on student answers. Each school district would also have access to practice tests to administer during the year.
Test questions would also focus more on high-order cognitive skills as Missouri aligns itself with Common Core standards, a set of educational goals adopted by 40 states.
The tests' focus on critical thinking and problem-solving should help students retain information better and apply it to real-life situations, said Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Taken together, these changes would help Missouri educators better track the preparation of each student for college or a career, Potter said.
"It's good information for the teachers and for the school, but also for the parents," Potter said.
The new, adaptive test system would give more precise information about a student's mastery of grade-level content, she said. A student who incorrectly answers a string of MAP questions would then be given some easier questions, and correct answers would mean more difficult questions.
The system would then be able to determine, for example, that a third-grader has already mastered content on a fifth-grade level.
"It's really going to explore the depth of each student," Potter said.
Missouri has been shifting to an online testing system since the 2008-09 school year, when end-of-course exams for middle and high schools were given via computer, Potter said.
The transition will be complete in 2014-15, when MAP tests for elementary schoolers will be given online for the first time.
Changes to the MAP test are part of Missouri's membership in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, an organization that is helping 25 states reach Common Core State Standards by updating their assessment tools. A practice test similar to what Missouri will use is available on the Smarter Balanced website.
Some school districts have purchased MAP practice tests in the past, but not all districts could afford them, Potter said. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has requested $1.2 million in state funding to make the interim assessments affordable, out of a total request of $18 million for MAP test changes.
Making practice tests available to all school districts fits with the testing philosophy of Columbia Public Schools, which already administers certain interim assessments during each school year to track its students' progress toward district goals.
"In essence, the challenge with a test like the MAP test is that it happens at the end of the year," said Chip Sharp, director of the district's Office of Research, Assessment and Accountability. "But if you test before the end of the year, you can make teaching and learning adjustments before the year's over."
Sharp added that preparing for the MAP test is not the district's key goal, as the test isn't necessarily a good predictor of a student's success beyond high school.
"We often will have larger goals than just a state test," he said. "Preparing students for a career or college, whatever their future will be, is a bigger goal."
The State Board of Education approved DESE's $18 million proposal, so now the request will go through the legislative appropriations process.
Rep. Mike Lair, chairman of the House Education Appropriations Committee, said he can't be sure whether his committee's support for public education will translate into approval for the funding.
"There are going to be some fights within the legislature about funding all sorts of things next year," Lair, R-Chillicothe, said. "It won't be pretty."
He said committee members tend to believe that public schools should be accountable for the state money they receive and that DESE's proposal seems to jibe with that idea.
"How do you become accountable?" Lair asked. "You do it through good testing, by making sure we're under the same umbrella - comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges - and making sure students have access to good testing supplies."