Saturday, July 11, 2015

Not Pearson, but Still

There are honestly so few companies able to cope with developing a testing product for a whole state that it is unusual for an RFP to get more responses than you can count on the fingers of one hand. In NYS, the account has gone back and forth between McGraw-Hill/CTB and Pearson, with Pearson winning a five-year contract in 2010. Instead of renewing that contract, NYS has decided in 2015 to go with Questar, formerly Touchstone Applied Science Associates, a company out of Minnesota that does nothing but tests.

When the Common Core Standards were being developed, two consortia started to develop accompanying tests, to be called PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessments. But after spending enormous amounts of money getting those tests off the ground, states started dropping out one by one, or, as in NYS's case, never opting in and deciding to create their own, state-centric tests. Pearson holds the contract for PARCC, and McGraw-Hill/CTB holds the contract for Smarter Balanced. From the original 26 states that signed on for PARCC, fewer than 10 are left. Mississippi dropped out early this year and signed on with Questar. Arkansas dropped out this month, and who knows what they'll decide to do.

It's a little surprising to see how pleased the unions are at NYS's move from Pearson to Questar. The teachers themselves seem a bit more cautious, at least on the UFT's FB page, recognizing, as one person posted, that this might represent the "same crap, different company." It helps that the new commissioner is promising that teachers will have significant input into the new tests.

To a large degree, Pearson brought this on themselves with some awful errors that were widely publicized. But there's also a level at which Pearson became the scapegoat for a testing regimen it did not birth. NYS's even larger contract (by $12 million) with Questar is for the same thing that the Pearson contract was for—tests at grades 3-8 and a plan for computer-based testing.

So what are we celebrating? Well, maybe we can celebrate the fact that this is a US-based corporation. Maybe we can be glad that it has an office in Brewster, NY. Maybe it's nice that the teachers will be involved, as they are for the Regents exams, although we'll have to see how that plays out.

But it's worth remembering that tests are written and edited by people, and the same people move around quite a bit. Questar's VP of Assessment Design spent two years at Pearson. When I look up Questar folks on LinkedIn, I find lots of connections to people I know, because people I know have written test items for Pearson, and McGraw-Hill, and Questar, and probably the other two testing companies. We all tend to go where the work is.

Here's what we've lost by scapegoating the tests: Any means of making intelligent comparisons between and among states. If only nine states out of 50 are using PARCC, that's not very useful. If we go back to a system by which each state can develop its own tests, we're right back where we started, with different states determining what "proficient" means to them, as in this chart:

chart by ICLE

When you let the nation determine what learning is state by state, you come up with a mythical system in which Mississippi kids outrank Massachussetts kids in reading and math. Hey, 81% of our kids are proficient in math, so suck it, Massachussetts, with your lousy 39%! That's where we're headed, once again. States' rights forever! We might not let them fly their Confederate flags, but we can let them pretend that their kids are learning. Is that really what we want?

Questar isn't Pearson. That's about the best I can say about them for now.

No comments: