Florida was supposed to begin using new tests designed to assess the Common Core standards during the 2014-2015 school year. The state will now need to find a vendor to supply those tests by March so they can be rolled out in time, which state officials says is doable.
But it’s worth noting that the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the 19-state consortium Scott pulled out of, has been working on this project for three years.
PARCC notified a sampling of school districts in each of the 19 states back in early September that they had been chosen to field test the new assessments this spring. The field test was designed to make sure the assessments go as planned, and to give school districts an opportunity to have some input into what works, and potentially, what doesn’t.
Under the new direction, will any school in Florida have an opportunity to field test a vendor-provided assessment? And if not, hasn’t Scott’s decision given Florida teachers, students and parents less input into the new assessment than they would have had?
The danger of rushing the development of new tests is real. Across the state line in Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September published a multi-part investigation into problems with the high-stakes tests that have proliferated since passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Reporter Heather Vogell turned up test questions to which there was no right answer, or multiple right answers; errors in scoring the tests; technical glitches that left students unable to complete tests, or in the worst cases wrongly prevented them from graduating; and a general lack of accountability for the testing companies. (Vogell did most of the reporting while on a Spencer Education Fellowship at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.)
The contractors who create the tests and score them told the AJC that rushed deadlines were often to blame for the problems.
Even as testing companies received public floggings for errors, lawmakers and education officials failed to address why the tests were derailing or how government contributed to breakdowns.
Some industry executives acknowledge their immense challenges, which include an unprecedented volume of test-takers and demanding federal and state timelines for reporting scores.
Those deadlines have sometimes left testing contractors without enough time to figure out why something didn’t look right, said Stuart Kahl, co-founder of testing company Measured Progress.
“So we had to go for it,” he said. “That’s not a situation you want to be in.”
At the same time, cash-strapped states have struggled to hire and retain staff to provide oversight. Too often, they leave contractors to police themselves, some experts say.
Vogell found little reason for confidence that the new Common Core tests would be any better. Importantly, she notes that states that have left the two consortia of states developing Common Core tests, also face challenges:
States that have bowed out of the common tests, including Georgia and Indiana, will face similar issues, whether they create new tests alone or partner with smaller groups of states. Some will work with a smaller budget than the states that belong to consortia.
The Gainesville Sun and the Ocala Star-Banner ran condensed version of the AJC investigation on their front pages this past weekend.
While state officials are emphatic that a new test will be in place for 2014-15, the Times’ Gradebook blog reports at least one Democratic lawmaker is calling for a testing “pause” as the state completes its transition to Common Core. Journalists should stay on top of this debate, closely track the state’s progress toward a new test—and monitor for signs of problems in the years to come.
What’s the cost?
In a separate article, the AJC’s Wayne Washington concluded it was impossible to know for sure how much moving to Common Core standards is going to cost school districts overall, since instructional material is frequently replaced in any case. But in her reporting, Vogell found that being involved in the testing consortia “has taxed state departments and the testing companies involved, and complaints have flared about cost.”
In his column for the Tallahassee Democrat, Flemming wrote that the state, by going it alone, may actually save a little bit of money, even while a testing company—most likely education behemoth Pearson—picks up another job.
Once the contract is handed out, reporters should check to see if that pans out. And any calculation of state spending should account for what Florida spent as part of the consortium until last week. Has that money now been wasted?
Education policy coverage is complex and it’s often difficult to bring it down to the classroom level. But tackling these questions will help Florida parents and taxpayers better understand what Scott and the state government is doing.