change of heart

Tennessee didn’t choose Questar in 2014. Here’s why officials say they’re confident now.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Kevin Dunlap talks to reporters at a press conference Thursday where he raised questions about the state's selection of Questar.

A lot can change in two years.

In 2014, Tennessee didn’t choose Questar to create its standardized tests in part because of the company’s lack of experience. This week, the education department announced it was awarding the company a contract worth up to $150 million.

The relatively quick reappraisal has some worried. Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Tennessee Democrat and social studies teacher in Warren County, challenged the company’s readiness at a press conference called Thursday to raise questions about the state’s choice.

“Questar has a history of coming in 2nd place — hired only when others fail,” Dunlap wrote in a handout distributed at the event.

In fact, Questar was New York’s top choice in 2015 when its previous contract with testing giant Pearson expired. And while Mississippi hired Questar to replace a different testmaker, the move was because state officials no longer wanted to share a test with other states, not because the existing tests failed.

But the upstart company was indeed Tennessee’s second choice in 2014, when the state gave a $108 million contract to Measurement Incorporated.

Then, Questar and another company, McGraw-Hill, both received a score of 75.89 out of 100 in the state’s vendor hiring process, far behind Measurement Inc.’s 89.80. Questar got lower marks than Measurement Inc. in every category, from past experience to technical qualifications to in-person interviews with company heads. Measurement Inc. also promised a speedier timeframe, a lower price tag, and the online exams that state officials wanted.

Now, state education officials say they are confident that the fast-growing testing company can deliver — even though the timeline and scope are more ambitious than what Questar has handled before.

Tennessee’s ask of Questar is more ambitious than Mississippi’s or New York’s: In addition to math and English tests for grades 3-8, Questar is also creating end-of-course exams for high school students.

And the timeline Questar is racing against  — high school tests must be ready in November — is considerably tighter than the eight months the company had to develop Mississippi’s test and just a small percentage of the time it told Tennessee it would need in 2014. In its application then, the company asked for almost two years to develop Tennessee’s assessments.

But Tennessee is making the job easier by slowing the transition to online testing. And Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters Wednesday that she was heartened by Questar’s history of rising to the occasion when states need a new test in a pinch.

The only significant snafu associated with the company’s tests so far was a technical glitch in Mississippi this spring that delayed testing by 20 minutes.

“Questar has recent experience developing a large-scale test thoughtfully and urgently,” McQueen said.

And Dunlap said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Questar’s low score from the state in 2014 does not portend problems with its exams this fall.

“I do think Commissioner McQueen is working very, very hard … so this can be successful for our students,” he said.

Correction:  A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Questar will create Tennessee’s science and social studies assessments. Those assessments will in fact be developed by Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”