UPDATE, 3:08 p.m.: In a 7-1 vote, the State Board of Education delivered a surprising rebuke to Gov. Asa Hutchinson this morning, rejecting his plan to enter into a new testing contract with ACT.
The governor on Monday said he was following the recommendation of his Council on Common Core Review to trade the PARCC test — which Arkansas has used for only one academic year — for an assessment called the ACT Aspire. When Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who heads the Common Core group, presented the recommendation to the legislature’s interim Education Committee on Monday, he portrayed it as more or less a done deal. However, authority for approving such a contract rests with the state board.
Both PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and ACT Aspire are aligned with Common Core State Standards — although it appears Aspire is a bit less aligned. More on that below.
As I wrote earlier today, both business-leaning education ‘reformists’ and progressives in the education policy community have been questioning the wisdom of the state switching assessments again so quickly. Today’s vote reflected that, with liberal-minded board members such as Jay Barth and Mireya Reith voting alongside members such as Dianne Zook and Kim Davis, who typically support a ‘reform’ agenda. Board chairman Sam Ledbetter abstained from the vote.
Board member Vicki Saviers said of the push for ACT Aspire, “Truthfully, it feels a little political. … We don’t want to get rid of Common Core but we need to do something, and the people who end up paying for it are teachers.” She and others criticized the lack of a bidding process leading up to the governor’s request to embrace the contract with ACT.
Arkansas Department of Education staff were put in the position of essentially defending the proposed change to the board. Attorney Lori Freno said that the contract with Aspire would be routed through a procurement process for ‘sole source’ contract provision, meaning there was only one plausible vendor to provide the contract. Board members weren’t buying that, considering there are at least a few alternatives for Common Core-based assessments other than Aspire — PARCC being one of those. Freno said the Department of Finance and Administration would have to make the determination about whether such a contract would meet ‘sole source’ criteria.
ADE Assistant Commissioner of Learning Services Debbie Jones listed several potential strengths and weaknesses of Aspire. The time required to administer the assessment should be significantly shorter than PARCC’s, for one — which matters because increasing numbers of people are concerned about standardized testing eating up too much of the school year. Accommodations for students with special needs — say, extended time — are more limited on Aspire than PARCC.
And, Aspire seems to be not tailored to Common Core standards so much as it is “domains,” which are groups of related standards. (Here’s Common Core’s website for more explanation about that taxonomy.) Jones said that fact could be viewed as a strength or as a weakness, as it arguably could dissuade teachers from teaching too closely to the test. Evidently, Aspire also lacks end-of-course testing for high school math — so rather than kids taking an EOC Algebra I or Geometry exam in the spring, they’d take a generalized “integrated” math test not tailored to the content of that particular class (this would be much like the ACT itself, I assume, though grade-appropriate).
To play devil’s advocate here, I’ll interject that in principle, that isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. I think there’s a legitimate question about how tightly standards should be coupled to assessments, if we do acknowledge — as we should — that it’s perverse for the tail of standardized tests to wag the dog of instruction. This was a point hinted at by the lone dissenting vote on the motion, Alice Mahony, who supports the move to Aspire. The problem with that argument, though, is that our educational system for the past 15 years has been built around the idea of having reliable standardized tests as the cornerstone of accountability in education. That’s why we pay millions of taxpayer dollars to ACT or Pearson or whomever to deliver a good product. If we test kids on generalized topics that are intentionally distanced from the content they’re imbibing in the classroom, well, it seems pretty damn unworkable to then harshly penalize kids, teachers, schools and districts on year-to-year fluctuations in test scores. Which is a much larger debate — but the point is that a switch to an exam with less specific alignment certainly won’t cure what’s wrong with testing in America.
Jay Barth (who writes a regular column for the Arkansas Times) said that, “The problem I have goes back to concern over [Arkansas’s] ESEA waiver … it requires an assessment that is aligned to standards.” (ESEA is the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is more or less the same thing as No Child Left Behind.)
Jones said that she believed Aspire is actually aligned to Common Core standards. “Because of the political landscape across the US, they do not want ‘Common Core’ all over their materials … but if you go back to Aspire … I believe we will see more alignment than they want to publicize.” She added, “What we cannot have is inconsistency and instability in our testing system. We need to make a decision that will stand.” Barth: “But isn’t this creating instability in our testing landscape?” Jones: “I don’t believe so.”
Mireya Reith, like several others on the board, made it clear that she wasn’t saying PARCC was definitely a better option than the ACT Aspire, but that she felt it was wrong to switch suddenly to a new test without going through the process to see if the ACT test is an actual improvement. “I’ve heard primarily from teachers, because they felt left out of this. Whereas the [Council on Common Core Review] represents a portion of our population, it is just that: a portion.”
She said she’s “Not pro PARCC or pro ACT, but pro-process. A competitive process would allow … input from across the state. I don’t think any of us want to bring politics into this.”
Saviers made the motion to not approve the ACT Aspire contract. Zook seconded, saying, “I have the greatest respect for the governor, and I appreciate all that [Council on Common Core Review] has done … but I do not feel that he was well-served with [this recommendation].”
In supporting the motion, Barth said, “I think nobody on this board is out to be an obstructionist, at all, but we’re left with so many questions. I don’t know how we would move forward with academic distress decisions in the near future …. this board is serious about academic distress, and we need the data to make decisions.”
With the ACT contract stopped in its tracks, what next? What test will Arkansas use for 2015-16? Jones said there are two realistic options, basically. “If we move forward with PARCC, we have to renew contrct with Pearson [the company that makes the exam] before July 1. It’s a very short timeline.” If we choose not to renew PARCC, she said, we might be able to renew a contract with testing provider Questar to create our own assessment for Arkansas (some Common Core states have done this after withdrawing from PARCC).
“If neither of those options are available, we’d have to start from scratch,” Jones said. “If we did that, with an RFP, I’m told it could be several months … and that puts teachers and administrators in a grave (position) as far as preparing for assessment [in 2016].”
The board then took another vote on a motion to clarify that Education Commissioner Johnny Key has the power to renew the Education Department’s contract with PARCC for another year, should the state board take no further action on the assessment issue. Again, the vote was 7-1, with Mahony voting no.