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Corinth Public Schools in Mississippi, USA, has been operating as a state “Innovation” zone for the last year. Under this authority, the state waives particular rules and requirements for a district, in exchange for innovations that increase student achievement and close achievement gaps.
Corinth’s innovation was its partnership with the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) and Cambridge Assessment International Education to roll out internationally benchmarked assessments that are performance based, and supporting curricula that are rigorous and comprehensive. The district began the rollout in high school four years ago. It’s now district wide, across all grades.
To get a better sense of the program and Corinth’s experiences, we interviewed district superintendent Dr Lee Childress. This interview has been edited for brevity.
What was the purpose of this initiative?
The district had been working with NCEE to explore partnerships that could create a more rigorous curriculum at the high school level. The ultimate goal was for students to demonstrate performance in order to receive a high school diploma.
Our district evaluated many national programs and we made the decision to go with Cambridge. It was not a decision that the central office made. It was not a decision that administrators made. It was a decision made by teachers.
We believed that exposing our children to an international set of benchmarks or standards would enable them to be more successful in college or in a career. We didn’t want to cover standards and materials at breakneck speed simply because they are on a test. Instead, we collaborated with Cambridge because their program focuses on key standards to success that help our students develop a deeper understanding of material, the ability to think critically, and the confidence to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through performance assessments, rather than multiple choice assessments.
What waiver did you get from the state of Mississippi?
We asked the state to allow us to substitute Cambridge exams for the state exams, PARCC and MAP. This allowed us to use the Cambridge performance-based system – Progression Tests, Cambridge Checkpoint tests and Cambridge IGCSE exams – in lieu of the Mississippi assessments. They approved us – which was somewhat surprising.
How did the shift to Cambridge assessments affect the students?
Initially it was challenging for our higher-level students, and they had to rise to that challenge. In order to achieve the same level of success that they had on previous exams, they had to be better prepared. They probably had to study and produce more work than they previously had done to reach that level.
We also had success with our lower-achieving students and those students who were in the middle range. Many of them experienced success that they had not experienced in the past. With multiple choice exams, you either know it or you don’t. With the Cambridge system, students can demonstrate the extent of their knowledge, whether that be a little or a lot.
For all of our students, we have seen dramatic improvements in their ability to read, analyze, synthesize and write. This has certainly helped their exam performance, but it's also better prepared them for educational or career experiences past high school.
How did the teachers respond?
Our teachers have really embraced it. As I’ve mentioned already, the decision to take the more rigorous performance assessment path was made by teachers. Then, as teachers talked with other teachers, they began to see how it prepared high school students for college, then middle school students for high school, and then primary students for middle schools. It just trickled down as the right thing to do. We've had some very nice teacher buy-in, and that has made a tremendous difference.
What is the significance of this initiative for the state and other districts?
We are beginning to see more and more districts move toward performance-based assessments. That is happening across Mississippi. We now have standards based report cards in place in kindergarten through third grade. In first through third, we've replaced the traditional A to F report card with mastery-based report cards. We're continually moving in that direction and that will soon be the case across all of our grades. We have also established a series of differentiated diplomas for our secondary schools.