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Malfeasance or Nonfeasance?

“I had zero involvement in the entire process from start to finish personally.”

-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi
on the selection of CTB/McGraw-Hill
as Oklahoma’s testing company

Carrie Coppernoll’s story this Sunday in the Oklahoman is a must read for people who care about the present state of public education, as well as its future. It leads with Barresi disavowing any involvement in the process for the selection of a testing vendor. This claim is problematic on at least two levels.

Option 1: It’s true – Say you’re the elected leader of the agency that spends one-third of the state’s tax dollars. After having problems with your testing company, you release an RFP (request for proposals) to select a new one. Testing is one of the most expensive and high-profile activities of the SDE. You want the right price. You want the right services. And you want assurances that the vendor is up to the task. You do not delegate that to your staff. You include them in the process. You seek and weigh their input. But you do not abdicate your responsibilities.

Option 2: It’s not true – In that case, she’s just running from the problem. The agency response thus far indicates exactly this. CTB will not be fired. They will commission a study to see if the disruption impacted scores and provide training and curriculum development for the state. Sounds to me like they’re getting off easy. Will the training be easy to access? Will teachers in Wilburton and Vici have the same opportunities as teachers in the Tulsa and OKC areas?  Will it be of high quality? While we can’t know that, we can be certain that this glitch will not drive a wedge between the state and CTB; rather it will make both entities more dependent upon each other. This sounds a lot like the solution to the testing problems we had with Pearson. They gave us a bunch of stuff that didn’t help anybody, and testing was still screwed up.

The concerns I have don’t stop there. The CTB official interviewed for the story shrugged off the problems with something of an aw shucks attitude. When he spoke of online testing as a “brave new world” (and I’m not even touching the literary reference there), he misses the point that we’ve been administering online tests in Oklahoma for years. He also misses the fact that there were problems with the paper-pencil tests as well. There were questions with no correct answers. There were shipments sent to the wrong districts. Nothing about this test administration has gone well, and it’s not all about the computers.

This all goes back to October, when the SDE initially awarded the contract to CTB and then had to cancel it due to administrative challenges*. They blamed the hold up on a combination of staff error and decision-making by the Office of State Finance.

After the December 9 special State Board of Education meeting – called specifically to reaffirm the selection of CTB as the state’s testing vendor, the SDE issued the following release:

State Board of Education Meeting Highlights
Dec. 6, 2012

Grades 3-8 Testing Contractor Recommended
The State Board of Education during a special meeting on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, voted unanimously to recommend that CTB/McGraw Hill be awarded a one-year $8.9 million testing contract for grades 3-8. The contract has four additional annual renewals for a total price of $28 million. The contract will still have to be approved by the state Department of Central Services. If awarded, CTB/McGraw Hill would develop tests in all subject areas for grades 3-8 as well as benchmark assessments in reading, mathematics and writing. The company already has the contract for Oklahoma end-of-instruction exams. This was the only item on the board’s agenda.

For some reason, no minutes are posted from this meeting on the SDE website.

Superintendent Barresi leads the SBE. Superintendent Barresi supervises the people who brought the recommendation forward. Hopefully she was at least briefed about the selection process and the relative merits and concerns of each prospective vendor. Otherwise, we might as well not even have a state superintendent.

Maybe it’s one of those situations where it depends on what your definition of is is…because that’s what she’s doing to public education.

*By the way, the standard setting that the SDE told us in the memo would be completed in June is now scheduled for July – the same week as Vision 2020. This means scores won’t be available until the end of July. And that some poor people have to miss a “valuable” learning experience.

Testing: To Profit or Not?

January 6, 2013 11 comments

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter Friday morning with two current Oklahoma district superintendents about testing. It began with Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Hime asking if high-stakes testing would be as popular if it were done by non-profits.

I responded that technically, the College Board (SAT, PSAT, AP exams) and ACT, Inc. (ACT, PLAN, EXPLORE) are non-profits. A quick bit of research on the state Open Books website allowed me to find the following state expenses for 2012 for testing contracts:

Company

Status

Expenses

NCS Pearson For Profit $14,200,000
CTB McGraw Hill For Profit $1,600,000
ACT, Inc. Non-Profit $1,500,000
College Board Non-Profit $900,000

Keep in mind that this includes all state contracts for testing – common education, higher education, and Career Tech. We should also note that the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education pay for all eighth grade students in the state to take the EXPLORE exam and all tenth grade students in the state to take the PLAN.

Pearson and CTB will be changing positions in 2013, with CTB being awarded the newest testing contracts, which include a suite of benchmark tests. The total amount will increase if Superintendent Barresi gets the legislature to approve a bump from $11 million to $16 million for the next fiscal year. Of the more than $18 million represented above, K-12 testing contracts are the vast majority of expenses.

However, the ACT and College Board share of testing revenue from our state increases when you consider the fact that students pay for those tests themselves. In 2012, more than 29,000 Oklahoma seniors took the ACT. At $35 a test, this accounts for another $1,015,000. This also doesn’t account for underclassmen taking the test any money spent on test preparation. Meanwhile, more than 23,000 Advanced Placement exams were administered at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Each of those exams cost $89, although some of the expense for that was borne by the state. According to this cost-benefit analysis report to the legislature, the SDE spent almost $600,000 on test fee assistance. This leaves about $1.5 million in test fees for parents.

A quick look at both the College Board and ACT websites shows that with more testing on the horizon, there is also more opportunity for Oklahomans to spend money with them – either directly or indirectly. College Board has Accuplacer, and a $1.99 smart phone app that you can also purchase. ACT has WorkKeys, a “job skills assessment system that helps employers select, hire, train, develop, and retain a high-performance workforce.”

College Board’s new president was a key architect of the Common Core State Standards. Something tells me they’re going to be a larger player in K-12 testing in the future. ACT is developing a new assessment system that will “span elementary grades through high school.” This system will launch in 2014.

By the way, I find it amusing that this system will be introduced in a “launch.” Since we currently don’t have a space program, we need something to help us imagine. As a nation. For the children.

Ultimately, we’ll be forcing our kindergarten students to endure high-stakes tests. Don’t laugh. There’s real momentum for this happening.

I remember watching a 60 minutes exposé in the 1990s critical of teachers “teaching to the test.” It’s a funny complaint from society. Policy makers create more laws calling for high-stakes tests. We evaluate schools and teachers by those tests. We spend crazy money on those tests, both as taxpayers and as parents. We use the results of those tests to plot the future of our children. We even use test results to determine more tests that students need. Teachers have not created this obsessive assessment culture. They’ve just been hired to work within it.

At this point, I don’t distinguish between the crass profiteers leeching off of public education or the so-called non-profits. They all make off with gobs of money. They all have seats at the policy-making table (a place where teachers aren’t allowed to speak). They all have been complicit in the destruction of what school used to be: a place for children to explore and pursue their passions.

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