picking favorites

Eschewing Pearson, state goes back to McGraw-Hill for GED

Nearly a year after Pearson, the testing company, took a public beating for mistakes on the exams it produced for New York State, state education officials are piling on.

Today, the State Education Department announced that the state will forgo a new high school equivalency exam made by Pearson in favor of its own exam, which the publishing company McGraw-Hill will produce.

The state announced that it would consider other vendors to create an equivalency test after Pearson partnered with the non-profit group that had previously produced the GED, which people who have not graduated from high school can take to show they are prepared for college, work, or the military. Cost was a major concern: Pearson’s test will cost $120 to start, twice what the current exam costs.

“While the GED was run by a not-for-profit, the system worked fairly well. But a Pearson GED monopoly would put our students at the mercy of Pearson’s pricing,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement today. “We can’t let price deny anyone the opportunity for success. That’s why, rather than pay Pearson twice the current cost or limit the number of students who can take the exam, the Regents approved a competitive process to develop a new assessment.”

The exam that McGraw-Hill produces will cost test-takers $54, state officials said today, although the state will have to shell out an undetermined amount to create the exam.

McGraw-Hill produced New York State’s annual exams before the state hired Pearson in 2011. Critics said McGraw-Hill’s exams were too predictable, contributing to widespread score inflation, and the state let the company’s contract expire.

Tisch’s criticism echoes comments she made last week about the city’s decision to recommend a Pearson curriculum as schools buy materials that are aligned to new learning standards known as the Common Core.

“I want everyone to know who’s listening here or across New York State, that if you simply cannot afford to buy curriculum from Pearson, there is content and curriculum available free to every person in this state,” Tisch said at a forum about the standards.

The state’s Common Core-aligned curriculums are being produced by nonprofit organizations, but they will not be complete by the start of the new school year. Using them will also require schools to buy some materials.

The heavy dose of criticism comes weeks before New York schoolchildren are set to take a new round of Pearson-produced math and reading tests. The company, which is in the middle of a multi-year contract with New York State to produce its annual exams, drew fire last year over its use of a nonsensical, heavily adapted reading passage that had previously appeared on other states’ tests. The state also identified errors on the Pearson-produced math tests.

At the time, Tisch called the errors “inexcusable” and publicly said she had grown concerned about Pearson’s ability to fulfill its contract with the state. Behind-the-scenes, state officials demanded that Pearson explain the “Pineapple and the Hare” passage.

New York is part of a multistate consortium, PARCC, that is developing shared Common Core-aligned exams. The state has not said for sure whether it will adopt PARCC’s exams, which are supposed to become available in the last years of Pearson’s contract with the state.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”