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Test-prep, survey costs spark discussion at brief PEP meeting

The focus of discussion at yesterday’s record short Panel for Educational Policy’s meeting was a contract not even up for a vote. That contract would have allocated close to $4 million toward printing and distributing the school environment surveys to students and parents, half of whom skip filling them out.

The agenda item was quietly removed from the slate of contracts, which included special education services, test-preparatory software, and gasoline for the Department of Education’s car fleet, after Queens representative Dmytro Fedkowskyj grilled officials about it at a Monday evening contracts meeting.

“I think that it’s an enormous amount of money to spend to push paper around,” he said again during the panel meeting, which lasted just 35 minutes. “I’m hopeful that we’ll have another robust conversation about this again under hopefully different terms.”

Officials said the paper survey distribution system would help boost participation rates, which for students are around 82 percent, and for parents have steadily increased from 26 to 53 percent since 2007. The city uses the survey results to assess school performance on the annual progress reports and sometimes to justify school closure plans.

David Ross, the department’s head of contracting, did not explain why the contract was removed at the eleventh hour, but noted that it did not “need to move” this month. It’s possible that the contract would not have won approval this month anyway if it failed to receive enough votes from the panel, which was short two mayoral appointees yesterday evening. The panel has never rejected a city proposal, but in March it had to table a contract because several members could not cast impartial votes.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative to the panel, said he would like to see a more economical proposal that did not involve sending reams of paper to parents. But officials said the contract was not likely to change between now and this fall, when it will likely be brought up for a vote.

“I already wasn’t going to vote for it,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also led a quick back-and-forth with officials over a $350,000 contract that would purchase software for elementary and middle school test preparation.

“Why do we need test-prep software? Why do we need test-prep at all?” he said. “There’s already a whole battery of assessments, interim assessments, predictive assessments and what not. I don’t understand why in this environment, when we don’t have enough money to pay teachers and class sizes are up, we have to spend money to do test prep.”

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky responded flatly that, “we’re certainly not encouraging schools to spend more time or money on test prep.” Rather, he said, the contract served to give schools the option to use software programs to support the work they’re already doing to align their reading and math curricula to the Common Core State Standards, and prepare for new state tests that will cover those standards.

Even with four panel members absent (mayoral appointees Rosemarie Maldonado and Ian Shapiro, and Brooklyn representative Gbubemi Okotieuro and Staten Island representative Diane Peruggia), all of the contracts were quickly approved.

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