The State Board of Education voted 4-2 today to use the ACT Aspire test as the measure of student achievement in public schools next year, thus reversing its June vote to reject a contract with the testing company.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s three new appointees — Charisse Dean, Brett Williamson and Susan Chambers — voted for the ACT test, which Hutchinson and his education commissioner, Johnny Key, had made clear was their desired alternative to the current PARCC test. Joe Black, a Beebe appointee, provided the fourth “yes,” a switch from his previous vote on the issue. The no votes were Diane Zook and Miryea Reith. Two other members, Jay Barth and Vicki Saviers, abstained from voting
Dean, who served on the Governor’s Council on Common Core Review prior to her appointment last week, made the motion; this was her first board meeting.
The change means that soon Arkansas will have used three separate assessments over the course of three years. Last year, the Education Department used PARCC, which was designed specifically to measure performance on the Common Core State Standards. It replaced the old Arkansas Benchmark exam, which had been used up until the 2013-14 school year; the switch from the Benchmark to PARCC was the final stage in a multi-year phase-in of Common Core in Arkansas schools. PARCC was supposed to be a more rigorous exam, corresponding to the more rigorous standards represented by Common Core.
But PARCC has fallen out of favor for a variety of reasons — among them, the intense frustration felt by teachers about the excessive time required to administer the test and various logistical problems involving technology and adequate Internet access (although some districts obtained waivers to administer a paper-and-pencil version of PARCC this spring, the default test is digital). It’s not just Arkansas, either. PARCC was designed by a consortium of almost two dozen states initially, but dissatisfaction with the test has resulted in two-thirds of those member states leaving.
Yet at the same time, ACT Aspire has not emerged as the default test to replace PARCC: Only three other states use Aspire as an official measurement of student performance, and one of those, South Carolina, has recently issued an RFP of its own for testing in the future, which indicates some dissatisfaction with the exam. One major point of concern about ACT Aspire is that it’s not as closely aligned to Common Core State Standards as PARCC. In other words, there’s a question about whether it truly measures, on a granular level, the very standards that Arkansas students have been learning for several years now. (ACT advocates say the test is indeed aligned to Common Core, just in a broader sense than PARCC.)
Perhaps the biggest problem with Arkansas’s switch to ACT was the fact that the decision seemed to be treated as a fait accompli last month when Gov. Hutchinson first decreed that the state should make the change. Many asked why the state didn’t search more broadly for another test.
Typically, assessments are vetted carefully — and more broadly, big state contracts usually go through an established procurement process, including an RFP. That’s one reason why, at their last meeting in June, the state board voted 7-1 to reject ACT. Board members also voiced concerns at that meeting that a switch to yet another test would make it impossible to measure students’ improvement from one year to the next — a bad situation, given that schools and districts live and die by Education Department measurement of test data.
Barth (who writes a regular column for the Arkansas Times) and Saviers voted in June to reject the ACT contract, but abstained from today’s vote. They said their abstentions were in protest of the process by which the decision to use ACT Aspire had been made. That meant the motion didn’t muster a majority of the nine-member board. But the Education Department’s new general counsel, Kendra Clay, said that if members abstained then only the number of those present and voting determined the outcome. That allowed Dean’s motion to pass with a four-person majority.
Toyce Newton, the new chair, did not vote either; the chair typically only votes in the case of a tie between the other members on the nine-person board.
Barth and Saviers explained that the state board had no real choice at this point but to accept the ACT Aspire, given that allies of the governor in the legislature have said they would block an attempt to use any test other than ACT Aspire. Barth said that his preferred option would have been to “move forward in 2015-16 with a PARCC-like exam” while simultaneously starting the RFP process to determine what test to use in future academic years, rather than jumping into a sole-source contract with ACT.
“That’s what feels right, [but] that’s not an option. That’s what we’ve been told,” he said.
Saviers echoed his frustration. “We’re told this is the only test that will be approved by the Legislative Council,” she said, prior to her abstention. “Commissioner Key said that if it looks like a PARCC test, it has no chance of being approved … My heart is clearly against the motion [to approve ACT]. But my mind is saying, ‘What if the motion fails? Then what happens? Then where does the assessment department go?’ … I feel in a corner.”
Although legislators have no direct control over testing contracts — it’s clear that that is supposed to be the mandate of the state board — they can effectively block the implementation of any state agency contract by holding up the review process in an interim committee, Legislative Council. Several House Republicans previously expressed their intent to do just that, if the state board did not cooperate with the governor’s wishes in signing on to ACT.
Had the board again rejected the ACT contract, therefore, that would have potentially left Arkansas schools with no assessment at all for the upcoming academic year. That in turn would likely mean the state would be out of compliance with crucial federal funding requirements until either the state board or the governor blinked. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking towards the beginning of the school year. And even if Barth and Saviers had said “no” today — thus providing four votes for ACT and four against — it’s not clear how Newton would have cast her tiebreaking vote. (In June, she joined her colleagues in voting “no.”)
Dean said that an RFP to search for another test was not a viable option for the coming school year. “If we allow for bidding or anything of the sort, it’s going to take up too much time,” she said. “In the situation that we’re in, it seems to be … that the best decision we have is to go with ACT.” Dean said she was well acquainted with the issue from her time on the Common Core Review Council, which was formed by the governor and chaired by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin to examine assessment options and educational standards.
The governor, of course, cheered the decision. “I applaud the Board of Education for its vote in switching from PARCC to ACT/ACT Aspire,” he said in a statement after the vote. “The board members were thoughtful and deliberate on this issue and reached a final decision that I think is best for our students and teachers over the long term. It provides stability and aligns Arkansas with a nationally recognized testing system.”