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Plans up in the air over student testing

No PARCC pact yet after ACT rebuff by Cynthia Howell | June 20, 2015 at 5:33 a.m.

The Arkansas Board of Education's vote to stick with its existing student-testing program -- and buck the governor's call to switch -- has left test plans in limbo.

The Education Board decided June 11 to stay with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests in math and English/language arts for grades three through high school. The board voted specifically against Gov. Asa Hutchinson's recommendation to change from PARCC to the ACT college-entrance exam and the related ACT Aspire tests for lower grades.

But as of Friday, state leaders had not signed a contract for the PARCC tests to be given in the 2015-16 school year. The deadline is July 1, Department of Education leaders have said.

And the state Education Department has not sought permission from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration to use ACT Inc. as a sole-source vendor for a new grade-by-grade testing program. That is a likely step if the state is going to forgo taking competitive bids on a new testing program.

The contract for a state testing program affects more than half of the state's 460,000 public school students, and officials estimate it will cost between $8.5 million and $9 million.

Arkansas Education Department leaders would only say this past week that they were "continuing to consult with the governor's office about next steps."

Hutchinson was in Europe all week on a trade mission but was due back in the state late Friday, his spokesman J.R. Davis said Friday afternoon. Davis said he would not have an update on the testing matter until he could speak with the Republican governor.

As of Friday there were no plans for a special meeting this month of the Education Board to reconsider the test choice.

All nine members of the Education Board were appointed by Hutchinson's predecessor, Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat. Three of the nine board members are leaving the board at the end of this month, creating vacancies for Hutchinson to fill with his appointees.

Hutchinson asked for the transition to the ACT and ACT Aspire tests after receiving, reviewing and accepting the recommendation for a test change from the Governor's Council on Common Core Review.

The governor had appointed the 16-member council, headed by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, earlier in the year to evaluate and make suggestions for possible changes in the education standards that Arkansas and a majority of other states adopted in 2010.

Arkansas phased in the education standards over the 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years and then administered the largely online PARCC exams based on those standards for the first time this past school year.

A statewide testing program is required by both state and federal law. The federal No Child Left Behind Act calls for states to administer math and literacy tests to students in grades three through high school and to use the results of those tests to evaluate the performance of schools and school districts.

Before the PARCC exams, Arkansas administered the Arkansas Augmented Benchmark Exams and End of Course Exams in Algebra I, geometry and 11th-grade literacy.

Arkansas legislators had signaled dismay with the two-part March and May PARCC exams before the exams were administered with the passage earlier this year of Act 1074.

Act 1074 prohibits the state Education Board from entering into a contract of more than one year for statewide assessments. It also says that the PARCC exams "may need to be discontinued after the 2015-16 school year," because of "substantial controversy and questions."

Initially, the bill that became Act 1074 called for the temporary return to the state's use of the Benchmark and End of Course exams that were based on different education standards, and the establishment of a task force to choose a different test or create one for the state.

The governor has cited Act 1074 as a reason for going forward with a change in the testing program for 2015-16.

A shift to the ACT test products would result in the third testing program for students in as many years.

"The Legislature had directed through Act 1074 that the current PARCC contract not be renewed long term and for the State Board to consider a change for the 2016-17 school year. I determined it best to make the change for the next school year for the sake of long-term stability for the teachers, school districts and for the sake of our students," Hutchinson said in a statement last week in response to the Education Board votes.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, a sponsor of Act 1074, said immediately after the Education Board's vote that he and other lawmakers unhappy with the Education Board's vote would pull together to block approval of the PARCC contract when it comes before the Legislative Council's Review Subcommittee.

Lowery said Friday that he anticipates a request for an emergency review of a PARCC contract to come as soon as next week because of the July 1 deadline for entering the contract.

The PARCC tests were given this past year to some mixed reviews that included complaints from educators that the performance-based assessment given in March in both math and literacy, and the end-of-year tests in May in the two subjects, took too much time away from instruction.

The tests at some grades exceeded 10 hours per student. But the scheduling of computer time and testing proctors exacerbated the loss of regular classroom instruction.

The PARCC exams, created by a consortium of about 10 states, has announced plans to combine the two testing windows to one and shorten the overall test, as well, for this coming year. It will still be longer than the four hours per grade for the Aspire and ACT tests.

Dana Breitweiser, a retired Education Department literacy specialist, was one of Arkansas' representatives in developing the PARCC exams. She has made presentations on the PARCC and ACT tests to the Education Board and the Governor's Council. She said she believes PARCC "is the best assessment of literacy and math we have on the market right now."

The PARCC exams are closely aligned to the Common Core State Standards, Breitweiser said. What is tested is taught, she said.

The ACT Aspire tests are aligned to the ACT college and career readiness standards, she said.

"Using the ACT Aspire will have the unintended consequences of adopting the ACT standards by default," she said, and "the curriculum will become narrowed to focus instruction on the standards that are assessed, not the standards that are adopted."

The PARCC exams are written so that students' reading, writing and language arts skills are evaluated in an integrated way, just as they are taught in class, she said.

She offered as an example of that a seventh-grade PARCC practice test item that requires students to read two passages and watch a video. The student must then compare the purposes of the three sources, analyze how each source uses explanations and demonstrations, and then cite the differences and similarities in the information provided by the sources.

The Aspire test evaluates student skills in isolation, she said, citing a seventh-grade sample writing prompt that asks students to explain how an invention can have an effect on people's lives and on the particular life of a student.

Breitweiser said Arkansas educators have a hand in developing the PARCC tests.

She also said the PARCC tests offer a greater number of accommodations for students who have disabilities. Instructions for the tests can be given in as many as 10 languages to accommodate students who don't speak English as their first language.

Lowery said the ACT tests are attractive in part because the ACT college-entrance exam is shorter and it's a "known quantity." More than 90 percent of the state's high school seniors take the test every year.

"It just makes sense to use an assessment tool [in the earlier grades] that builds toward that," Lowery said of the ACT Aspire tests. "My argument all along has been that the ACT testing program will more than likely help us with our remediation issue. If we have students better prepared for college who take the ACT, then hopefully more of them will make a 19 and above."

High school students who score at 19 or better on the ACT college-entrance exam's different subtests aren't required to take noncredit remedial courses in college.

The testing issue is being monitored by others.

Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, the state's largest teacher and support staff union, wouldn't state a test preference Friday.

"It's imperative that whatever assessment that our state chooses to move forward in it must be aligned to what the students are learning in their classrooms and it doesn't take up an excessive amount of valuable instruction time," Robinson said.

Metro on 06/20/2015

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