Monday’s announcement
by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin that Arkansas schools will switch from using the PARCC test to the ACT Aspire has sparked criticism from voices in the state’s education policy community who are often on opposite sides of the fence.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) posted a series of concerns on Facebook last night about the logic of making such a switch, and the process by which it was made. In part:

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2. It defies any sense of coherence to change tests at this point. What is the logic of deciding not to continue with a test that was just administered with no opportunity for reflection, to learn from results, processes, etc? … 
3. Like PARCC or not, it has been deeply vetted and prepared for from 3-4 years. Like Aspire or not, how would you know? No such vetting and study have taken place, not even by the Common Core Review Council, which recommended its use. We don’t know what we are getting. How could we?
4. Adding a new test for next school year will mean 3 different tests in 3 years! This defies logic and most certainly gives no reliable data on which to depend.

As with so many major decisions from the Hutchinson administration, the switch from PARCC to Aspire was treated as a fait accompli. Griffin, who chairs the group set up by the governor to hear citizen comments on Common Core State Standards and related testing, has taken umbrage at questions related to the decision. When Elliott attempted to press Griffin on the issue of process at Monday’s Education Committee, he grew combative. (True — I was there, and Griffin’s overheated reaction to the senator’s question was startling.)

When he made his report to the Education Committee, I asked Lt. Gov. Griffin how the Common Core Review Council could recommend such a drastic change when the work of the Council has not even been completed, and what does this decision now mean to folks whose voices have not been heard but who would be a part of the rest of the listening tours, he took a visibly angry exception to my question, was rude and condescending— a display of unchecked arrogance and hostility unmatched by anyone who has ever testified before a committee in my memory. He made the point that this is an initial recommendation (which the Governor had empowered the council to give) before work was finished. Okay. But the testing part of the council’s task is of such consequence, it seems the process of completing all announced meetings begs to be finished before such a recommendation could be made.

She also raises a number of other very good points, including some about procurement. Why was there not a formal bidding process on a contract this significant?

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It’s interesting that Elliott’s missive happens to coincide with an editorial appearing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today on the same topic. The newspaper — a loud and consistent cheerleader for charter schools and ‘education reform’ of all kinds — typically speaks of the governor’s agenda in nothing but glowing tones. Not today. The D-G says only three other states use the ACT Aspire (and those only for some grades). That runs counter to one of the primary reasons for switching to Common Core in the first place, which was to facilitate cross-state comparisons of student performance:

Next year, once Arkansas is finished testing its kids and the results come back, we can compare how well our grade schoolers are learning to kids in Alabama. And only Alabama. High school students in Arkansas will be able to measure how well they’re doing when compared to . . . Wisconsin’s high schoolers, and Wisconsin’s only.

Some comparison. Clearly this is a step back for education in Arkansas.

Some have suggested that the ACT Aspire will catch on quickly, and more states are sure to adopt the test. Fine. But wouldn’t it have been wiser for Arkansas to join if and when the test becomes popular and a majority of states, or near-majority, are already on board? Why adopt this test now when the only thing we really know is that just three other states use parts of it?

The switch to a new test will require action by the State Board of Education, which is meeting today and tomorrow. I don’t see mention of ACT Aspire on either agenda, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come up.

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The assumption has been that the state board will approve the change, as per the governor’s recommendation. But … hmm. Typically, there’s little daylight between the D-G’s aggressively ‘choice’-driven positions on education issues and those of, say, the Walton Family Foundation, which wields great influence in the realm of education policy.

I should also mention that although it raises the right questions, today’s editorial is shamelessly misleading. It speaks sadly, and vaguely, of a “political atmosphere” in which there’s probably “nothing left to do” but allow the change to proceed. Ha. What political atmosphere would that be, exactly? The one in which Asa Hutchinson’s policy plans are all but assured passage? The one in which education decisions are made from on high, accompanied by an almost contemptuous dismissal of democratic control and community input? Also, the D-G opportunistically gives the impression that opponents of the choice-driven vision of public education pushed by ‘reformers’ will be delighted by the chaos created by a switch to a new test. “If the state keeps changing tests year-to-year, that’s … a dream come true for anybody who dislikes the idea of accountability in the public schools,” it says.

Untrue. It’s not a dream come true for anyone.