getting tested

Pearson's NYC misstep draws state education officials' concern

ALBANY — State education officials expressed doubt today about whether the testing firm Pearson, which has several contracts in New York, can handle its expanding workload.

“Obviously, the public is starting to question, I think, very aggressively with us whether or not they’re able to manage all of the things they’ve taken on,” New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said of Pearson, whose subsidiary testing company NCS Pearson, Inc. has a five-year, $32 million contract to create tests for the state.

Tisch, who has criticized the testing company before, was responding to Pearson’s latest misstep in test administration. On Friday, the New York City Department of Education said nearly 5,000 students were told they were ineligible for the city’s Gifted & Talented programs when they actually should have made the cut. Three separate errors took place during test grading, which Pearson oversaw, department and company officials both said.

Pearson has been in business with the city since at least 2003, securing more than $120 million in contracts to provide publishing materials, professional development services and, more recently, tests. NCS Pearson, Inc. began creating the city’s gifted tests in 2006 and received a new $5.4 million contract last year to continue its work. Pearson agreed to $500,000 in cost reductions and expenses, $80,000 of which will cover communications and outreach to affected families.

Pearson currently has 11 active city contracts worth more than $50 million, according to a review of the city comptroller’s Clearview online database.

The state’s relationship with Pearson is less established. It didn’t start working with Pearson until 2010, when it hired the company to scale the state’s field tests. A few months later, Pearson won a $32 million contract to help the state design new assessments aligned to the Common Core, a deal that runs until December 2015.

Last year, in the first year running the state’s testing program, the company was widely criticized for including exam questions that included nonsensical reading passages and some errors.

Tisch said this year’s English exams, the first to be aligned to the new standards, “had none of the issues that we had last year.” But she said Pearson didn’t deserve all of the credit. Following last year’s issues, the state cracked down on Pearson, ordering the publishing giant to agree to make changes to the way it administers the tests moving forward.

“I’d remind everyone that Pearson didn’t do those alone,” Tisch said. “We had our team working with them and overseeing it. So obviously I’d like them to be able to manage themselves.”

A Pearson spokeswoman said the company is determined to show that it can handle the work it has been hired to do. “We understand these concerns and take them very seriously,” said the spokeswoman, Susan Aspey. “We’re absolutely committed to meeting and exceeding our contract obligations in service to the people of New York.”

Pearson also runs the testing programs of several other states, including Texas, Kentucky, and Illinois. Bronx Regent Betty Rosa said Pearson’s broadening portfolio might be starting to damage what she said had been a good reputation at administering gifted and talented programs for the city.

“They’ve always had a good history with this test,” she said. But, she added, “if you spread yourself out too thin sometimes that’s an issue.”

The criticism comes at a critical moment for Pearson. As states consider whether to adopt Common Core-aligned reading and math tests that are produced by groups of states, Pearson must prove its value or risk losing a major segment of its market. New York State is working with one of the testing consortiums but has not yet committed to administering its tests, which would be available for the first time in 2015.

For now, city officials criticized Pearson but said they were prepared to continue the relationship.

“I have told the company’s officials in no uncertain terms that I expect this will never happen again,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement last week. Today, he added, “Pearson is a big company, and what they did was totally unacceptable.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.