Thursday, July 03, 2014


By: Stephanie Simon and Caitlin Emma |

July 2, 2014 08:59 PM EDT  :: A new front has opened in the Common Core wars — over testing contracts.

The high-stakes battle is undermining one of the Obama administration’s most prized initiatives: its vision, backed by more than $370 million in federal funds, of testing students across the country on a common set of exams in math, reading and writing.

The administration wants children in Mississippi to be measured against the same bar as children in Massachusetts or Michigan. But now a testing revolt is spreading across the country, adding to a slew of troubles for the Common Core initiative, which began as a bipartisan effort but has come under fire from parents and teachers across the political spectrum.

Four years ago, about 40 states expressed interest in using shared tests. But at least 17 already have backed away from using them this spring, including several of the most populous states, such as New York, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Often, the pushback has come from state legislators furious at the expectation that they would appropriate tens of millions for a test developed with federal funds and controlled by a faceless consortium — without a chance to consider competing products. “Alarm bells were going off in everyone’s district,” Michigan state Sen. Phil Pavlov said.

More defections may loom in a half-dozen states, among them Louisiana, Missouri and perhaps New Jersey.

Even states that are still officially committed to the shared exams are flexing their independence. Several are using the federally funded exams just for third through eighth grades and using different tests for high school.

The rebellion ensures that “the Common Core will certainly be an Obama legacy — though probably not the one he had in mind,” said Frederick Hess, an education policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Indeed, Common Core opponents are gleeful at the prospect of fanning concerns about the exams to drive more states away from the standards.

“We’re really at the beginning of public scrutiny of these testing consortia,” said Emmett McGroarty, a leader of the anti-Common Core movement at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank. “This is by no means over. It will continue to snowball.”

Even some Obama allies are angry at the administration’s decision to pour money into developing new exams years before most teachers began introducing the academic standards into their classrooms. They say it made the Common Core feel scary and punitive rather than an exciting new way to challenge students to achieve.

The National Education Association this week will consider launching a lobbying push to dramatically reduce federally mandated testing — which could undercut the administration’s Common Core goals even further. The other big union, the American Federation of Teachers, has also been outspoken on the issue.

“The federal government has a lot of blame here,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “This fixation on testing is just wrong.”

Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the administration invested in developing new exams “in response to governors, school chiefs and educators who wanted to move away from the bubble tests of the past.” She noted that Secretary Arne Duncan has called for “a common-sense middle ground on testing and test prep.”

A ‘big time’ concern

Planning for Common Core tests began in earnest in 2010, when the Education Department granted $186 million to each of two consortia — groups of states that agreed to work together to develop high-tech exams that would be far more challenging than the typical fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice. The two consortia, known as PARCC and Smarter Balanced, paid testing companies to do most of the work in consultation with state officials and educators.

As plans solidified, complaints began to simmer.

For one thing, the tests would be long. And there would be a lot of them.

PARCC estimates its exams will take eight hours for an average third-grader and nearly 10 hours for high school students — not counting optional midyear assessments to make sure students and teachers are on track.

PARCC also plans to develop tests for kindergarten, first- and second- graders, instead of starting with third grade as is typical now. And it aims to test older students in 9th, 10th and 11th grades instead of just once during high school.

Cost is also an issue. Many states need to spend heavily on computers and broadband so schools can deliver the exams online as planned. And the tests themselves cost more than many states currently spend — an estimated $19 to $24 per student if they’re administered online and up to $33 per student for paper-and-pencil versions.

That adds up to big money for testing companies. Pearson, which won the right to deliver PARCC tests, could earn more than $1 billion over the next eight years if enough states sign on.

States can make minor modifications in the Pearson contract. For instance, the contract anticipates a shift to grading student essays by computer algorithm, assuming the technology pans out, but lets states pay more to have them scored by a human reader. PARCC officials, however, said they expected member states to adopt the contract largely intact.

That lack of local control is a “big time” concern, Arizona state Sen. Chester Crandell said.

Then he repeated it, voice rising: “Big time, big time.”

He’s not alone in that frustration.

In January, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear withdrew from the PARCC consortium, citing a state law that “requires a fair and equitable” competitive bid process. Tennessee and Arizona soon followed. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has announced plans to do the same.

Those states could, in theory, still pick the PARCC exam after examining bids from several companies.

But it’s unclear if they will be able to do so because a legal dispute in New Mexico has tied the PARCC testing process in knots. The dispute could drag on for months, derailing the timetable for delivering the common exams and driving away still more states.

Arkansas, for instance, plans to go its own way on testing if the dispute isn’t resolved by mid-July, said Kimberly Friedman, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education.

The other consortium has had defections, too. In Michigan, state Sen. Pavlov led a bipartisan effort to cancel the state’s plans to administer the Smarter Balanced test next spring. Instead, the state will seek bids for a new exam.

Pavlov said he wants Michigan officials, not a distant consortium, to oversee the tests and have the power to demand changes if problems arise with the way the questions are phrased or exams are scored. “Our priority has to be to put Michigan kids first,” he said.

Yet some teachers complain that kids could end up the losers as political jockeying over the tests intensifies. In Michigan, second-grade teacher Julie Brill says she and her colleagues are expected to spend the coming year teaching Common Core standards — while preparing kids for a non-Common Core test that measures different skills entirely. “It’s just so crazy,” she said.

And in Florida, which broke with PARCC last year, third-grade teacher Mindy Grimes-Festge says she’s glad to be out of a Common Core test she believed was designed to make children fail — but she has only the most minimal information about the replacement exams.

“We’re going in blind,” Grimes-Festge said. “It’s like jumping from one frying pan to another. Just different cooks.”

Make or break for Common Core

The tests aren’t just a symbolic issue. They’re crucial to the Common Core.

The consortium exams are widely seen as the best way to ensure that states faithfully implement the new standards, which guide instruction in math and language arts from kindergarten through high school.

Analysts say the shared exams are also the best way to ensure that states set a high bar for student performance, since the consortia determines what score a student needs to be considered “college and career ready.” On their own, states can — and do — cut minimum passing scores as low as they want; on some state tests, kids need to earn a score of just 30 percent to pass.

The shared exams are also internationally benchmarked, meaning parents will be able to compare their children’s performance with peers in Canada or Finland or Singapore — a top priority of the Obama administration. And they’re meant to be demanding, with open-ended math problems and analytical essay questions.

President Barack Obama is so excited about the prospect of more rigorous assessments, he gave them a shout out in his State of the Union, touting “new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test.”

But the president’s enthusiasm is a red flag to conservative lawmakers who dislike any initiative coming from the federal government. They’re also upset that in many states, the governor, superintendent and state board of education agreed to join one or the other testing consortia without consulting the legislature.

“The legislature didn’t have a say-so,” said state Rep. Rick Womick, a Tennessee Republican. “All of a sudden we’re told, ‘You will do Common Core.’ It was all very insidious.”

Supporters of the Common Core say they’d hoped more states would stick with the shared tests, but they’re still pleased that about two dozen will likely use them next year.

The Smarter Balanced consortium retains a solid bloc of states committed to its exams, including Oregon, California, Nevada and New Hampshire. The other consortium, known as PARCC, has lost nearly half its members, but its tests are still likely to be administered in states including Ohio, Illinois and Maryland.

“We have a critical mass of states going forward,” said Carmel Martin, an executive vice president at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary in the Education Department.

That critical mass could soon shrink, however.

North Carolina and Missouri are weighing scrapping the Common Core standards altogether. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has said he wants to extricate his state from the exams.

In Colorado, a committee appointed by the legislature meets this month to reconsider the state’s entire approach to testing, and the Colorado Education Association this spring voted to urge the state to withdraw from PARCC. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently hinted that he may be reconsidering the state’s commitment to give the PARCC exams widely this spring.

The hottest debate has flared in Louisiana, where Jindal issued an executive order last month to repeal the Common Core standards and cut ties with the PARCC exam.

Declaring that it would violate Louisiana law to adopt the PARCC test without seeking bids from other vendors, Jindal ordered the state Education Department to start soliciting competitive bids. But the state’s school superintendent, John White, refused.

White dismissed the governor’s concerns about state law as so much bureaucratic red tape and insisted that cancelling the PARCC test would violate students’ rights to measure the quality of their education against peers across the country.

“We’re caught up talking about the narrow issues of the status quo establishment, like contracting and procurement law,” White said. “It’s time to start talking about civil rights.”

But in Louisiana and other states, it may well be contract and procurement law that proves decisive.

Murky plans from testing consortia

The bigger consortium, Smarter Balanced, allows member states to solicit bids from rival testing companies to administer and score its exams.

The PARCC consortium is more rigid. One of its member states, New Mexico, requested bids from test companies to develop, administer and score the exams. Only one company, Pearson, made an offer.

So New Mexico negotiated a contract with Pearson — a contract that explicitly bars Pearson from offering lower prices to any other states. PARCC then urged other states to adopt the New Mexico contract with Pearson without first soliciting competitive bids from other companies.

That approach is perfectly legal in most states. But veterans of the testing industry say they’ve never heard of it being used to procure state exams. It’s more commonly used for purchases of bulk products — for instance, several states might piggyback on a neighboring state’s contract to purchase huge quantities of E-ZPass transponders for toll roads.

Before other states could adopt the Pearson contract, a rival testing company, the American Institutes for Research, filed a protest with the state of New Mexico. AIR’s complaint: The bidding was rigged so only Pearson could effectively compete.

AIR pointed out that New Mexico bundled four years of test development and four years of test administration into one contract even though Pearson had been working on the first year of test questions under a separate contract with PARCC paid for by federal funds.

AIR also complained that New Mexico required companies to price out their services to deliver tests on an as-yet-unbuilt computing platform that PARCC was planning to pay for with federal funds. (Companies could also, if they wished, propose their own computing platform.) AIR officials said it was impossible to accurately price their services using a platform that didn’t yet exist.

Shortly after the deadline for bidding in New Mexico had passed, PARCC canceled its plans to build the new computing platform, saying it had not received quality bids. The consortium decided to go with a Pearson testing platform instead.

Both Pearson and PARCC declined to comment on the New Mexico contract. Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said it had been an “open and fair award process.”

But AIR’s president of assessment, Jon Cohen, said the request for proposals “looked designed to go to Pearson, and it seems every other firm in the industry must have drawn the same conclusion” since no other company bid.

AIR’s complaint is pending before New Mexico’s state purchasing agent, who has no deadline to make a determination. If AIR loses, it can take the state to court, which could tie up the process for many months.

Already, Pearson is warning — in a letter to the purchasing agent — that “further delay… would cause irreversible and irrevocable harm to the project deadlines required for the PARCC assessments.”

The delay could also give Common Core opponents more time to work to overthrow the standards or back out of the shared assessments.

In Mississippi, for instance, Patrice Guilfoyle, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Education, said plans for adopting a contract to give the PARCC tests next spring are “still being worked out.”

In the meantime, Bryant said he will ask the legislature reconsider the tests altogether. “Mississippi has the responsibility and the authority to manage its own education system,” he said, “and not delegate that control to Washington.”

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