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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede