a big switch

New York ditches controversial test-maker Pearson

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

New York is ditching Pearson as its test-maker after years of high-profile missteps, switching to a smaller vendor that will cost more but comes with less baggage, the State Education Department announced Thursday.

The state awarded a new five-year deal to Questar Assessment Inc., a Minneapolis-based company that has emerged in recent years as a smaller competitor to Pearson, the dominant vendor in the country’s lucrative standardized testing market. The switch allows the state to distance itself from Pearson, which has faced intense criticism for missteps and errors included in its New York tests and become symbolic of broader concerns about the privatization of public education.

The new $44 million contract, which was not released and is still under review by the state’s attorney general and comptroller, is more expensive than Pearson’s $32 million contract. But it likely includes a requirement to design computer-based exams for use in spring 2017 in addition to paper-and-pencil tests for third through eighth grades in math and English.

The computer-based tests would inch the state closer toward adopting “next generation assessments” that many states are adopting as part of their effort to adopt the Common Core standards. New York is part of a consortium of states, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, that agreed to roll out the computer-based tests this year. But New York has held off on implementing those PARCC exams created by the consortium, which several states have exited in recent years as they commissioned tests of their own.

The change is the first high-profile announcement by new state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who started on Monday and is facing a growing movement of parents opposed to the state’s testing program altogether. Roughly 200,000 students across the state, or nearly 20 percent, opted out of taking this year’s Pearson tests, a movement that has grown in response to concerns that the exam’s contents are inappropriate and poorly aligned to the state’s new standards.

Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the new tests will be more useful for teachers and parents.

“Our goal is to continue to improve the assessments to make sure they provide the instructional support parents and teachers need to prepare our students for college and careers,” Tisch said in a statement.

Though state education officials have long emphasized that teachers were involved in the test development process, they suggested that extra engagement will be added as the new tests are created.

“New York State teachers will be involved in every step of the test development process,” Elia said. “Teacher input is critical to building a successful state test, and that’s why the new contract emulates the collaborative process used to develop the Regents Exams.”

Pearson has had a checkered history in New York.

In 2012, the Pearson-made tests included several errors, including a widely ridiculed reading passage with the nonsensical theme, “Pineapples don’t wear sleeves.” In response, the state forced Pearson to change the way it selects and edits reading passages and to hire an outside expert to review its test-development process. Critics have also faulted the tests for including reading passages drawn from published texts that feature product names, and for a “gag order” that keeps educators from discussing test items. (Pearson has said the state education department is behind that ban.)

With Pearson’s contract set to expire this December, the state has been officially shopping for a new contract since February. New York joins a growing number of states getting rid of Pearson: Florida and Ohio replaced the company with American Institutes for Research, and Pearson lost a bulk of Texas’ testing contract in May. Indiana ended its contract with Pearson earlier this year as well and split the contract into parts that went to six different companies. One of those companies is Questar, which will receive $7.5 million to design end-of-course high school exams.

Switching to Questar means that New York students will be taking a different test for the third time in five years. Before Pearson began its testing in 2012, the state used McGraw-Hill.

“Pearson has had a worse track record than anyone else, not just with computer-based testing but also dating back to its paper-and-pencil tests,” said Bob Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest, which monitors standardized testing trends nationally.

But Schaeffer said that other testing companies have not fared much better, adding that New York’s switch to Questar did not automatically signal an improvement.

“The question is, when a new smaller company takes on a huge state contract,” Schaeffer said, “do they have the capacity to do it right?”

Questar was awarded a 10-year contract to develop state tests for Mississippi in April. A Questar spokesperson did not immediately respond to email messages.

Pearson spokeswoman Laura Howe said the company spends nearly $800 million annually to research new learning and testing models and is constantly working to improve the quality of its assessments. She added that the company will continue to offer other assessments, learning materials, and higher-education services in New York.

“Pearson has a long, proud history of serving students, parents and educators in New York,” she said in a statement. “While we are disappointed that we were not awarded the grade 3-8 testing contract, our commitment to New York is unwavering.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.