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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.