By Len Lazarick
Here’s a test for post-grad policy wonks:
Having watched Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting online, how would you describe Comptroller Peter Franchot grilling of state education officials about a $1.9 million contract for standardized tests by the NCS Pearson firm?
A) A hissy fit
B) A tantrum
C) A skeptical tirade
D) A scathing critique
E) All of the above
Based on the live streaming you saw, how did Comptroller Franchot describe this Iowa company?
B) Technological screw-ups
C) Remarkably inept at test questions
D) A lousy company
E) All of the above
How did Gov. Larry Hogan react to the comptroller?
B) Agreed with most of what he said
C) Suggested negative outcomes
D) Said, “If we don’t do it, it could be worse.”
E) All of the above
A) He would vote against the contract
B) Contract was “disservice to our kids”
C) Loss of federal funds was an “invalid threat”
D) Eventually voted to approve the contract after governor agreed with him on a completely unrelated item on the agenda
E) All of the above
If you answered “all of the above” to all of the above, you got it right.
Pearson and PARCC tests
NCS Pearson is a large Iowa-based company that produces standardized tests for school systems around the country. Pearson has gained recent notoriety as the lead contractor producing the PARCC tests (Partnership for Readiness for College and Careers) aligned with the new Common Core national curriculum standards.
Maryland heads up the consortium of states contracting with Pearson for PARCC tests using $186 million in federal dollars. There were once 23 states part of the consortium (Franchot used the figure 26) and now there are only nine, with states dropping out as they rejected Common Core or objected to Pearson’s practices.
“I think there’s a bigger issue about our state’s relationship with this company,” said Franchot.
Deputy state school superintendent Kristy Michel responded, “We’ve been with Pearson quite a while and have not had the same experiences” as other states. “We do feel we’ve had better experiences.”
But as representatives from the State Department of Education patiently tried to explain, the one-year contract extension before the Board of Public Works was not about PARCC at all but about “the Alternate Maryland School Assessment test (ALT-MSA). an alternative learning assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities who cannot participate in the general Maryland School Assessment (MSA) test even with accommodations.”
“It’s a much different assessment” than PARCC, said Michel.
Weird question for sixth graders
Undeterred, Franchot read, or at least tried to read, a complicated question found on a 6th grade Pearson test based on an article in Smithsonian magazine called “Nimbus Clouds: Mysterious, Ephemeral, and Now Indoors.”
“As a result, the location of the cloud is an important aspect, as it is the setting for his creation and part of the artwork. In his favorite piece, Nimbus D’Aspremont, the architecture of the D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium, plays a significant role in the feel of the picture.
“The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible,” he writes. “You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.”
“That’s plinth, P-L-I-N-T-H,” said Franchot.
As Franchot finished, Hogan laughed, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not in the sixth grade.”
More seriously, the governor said, “I share a lot of concerns that the comptroller has with respect to Pearson, PARCC, and over-testing. We still think we’re over-tested.” Hogan noted that he had signed into a law a commission to study and make recommendations about the amount of testing in public schools.
Michel told Franchot there was a possibility of losing hundreds of millions in federal funds for education of the disabled if the test were not given, and Hogan said he was concerned about that too. He was also “concerned about losing our waiver on No Child Left Behind” and “potentially violating the civil rights of these severely disabled student.”
“Everything [Franchot] said, I agree with,” Hogan said. But “if we don’t do it, it could be worse.”
Michel said, “We’re asking for one year extension so we can figure out something else. This is a stop-gap one-year extension.”
Franchot scoffed at the loss of federal funds, noting it had never happened in Maryland, and Michel said it had only happened to Washington state, which is appealing the decision.
“I don’t think there’s any threat of losing federal dollars,” Franchot said. “I think it’s an invalid threat.”
Layoffs in corrections
Franchot’s objections to the Pearson testing contract were overshadowed at the board meeting by an even longer discussion of the proposal to eliminate 63 positions in the human resources offices of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Hogan supported Secretary Stephen Moyer’s plan, but several veteran state employees about to lose their jobs despite good performance evaluations tearfully pleaded for the state to find a better solution.
After extensive back and forth, Franchot moved that the board delay action on the plan for three weeks. When Hogan readily agreed, Franchot gave in on the Pearson contract and approved it, along with Hogan and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
While NCS Pearson may be Iowa based, the corporate offices for Pearson are in England.
If they are concerned about the money spent on these tests, how about looking at all of the money that has been spent on computers, Chromebooks, and other technology required to take these tests, which are given online.
New regulations for alternate assessments may make this whole program moot, since the U.S. Department of Education wants to take away state’s options to give assessments like Alt-MSA to students.
State education officials will need another year to figure out an alternative? There is more wrong than this bad contract. The responsible State education officials should either give the Governor a set of options within 90 days, or their resignations! Comptroller Franchot was spot on, this is a bad deal for Maryland. We should stop chasing Federal funding when it involves wasteful spending.
Correction: Washington state did not lose one penny of federal funds. What happened is that, wisely, the state legislature refused to allow student test scores to be used to judge teachers. (Experts such as the US Statistical Assn say the tests are too inaccurate and unreliable to use that way; see http://fairtest.org/teacher-evaluation-fact-sheet-2014). The feds then withdrew the waiver from some No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability requirements it had granted WA and many other states, including MD, in exchange for using student test scores to judge teachers. If US Senate and House can agree on a law to replace NLCB, it will tell states they do not have to use student scores to judge teachers (both chambers agree on that). Pearson, BTW, is an international conglomerate which has regularly screwed up testing and scoring, and used completely ridiculous and often age-inappropriate questions in its tests.