Designated hitter

Pearson gets emergency test scoring contract from Tennessee

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Less than a month after the Tennessee Department of Education fired the creator of its botched new TNReady test, it’s hired a bigger, more familiar testing company to grade the standardized assessment this summer.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Monday that testing conglomerate Pearson will get the emergency contract worth an estimated $18.5 million.

She also disclosed that the department plans to select a new vendor in June to develop and administer next year’s state assessment.

The choice to hire Pearson in the interim was reached in collaboration with the state’s Central Procurement Office, which can purchase services immediately in the open market to meet emergencies arising from an unforeseen cause.

On April 27, the department terminated its contract with Measurement Inc., the North Carolina-based company that developed the state’s standardized tests for this year, including the new math and English assessments called TNReady. TNReady’s inaugural year was marred by slow computers on the day of its online launch, printing delays after the hasty decision to switch to paper testing, and ultimately the cancellation of the bulk of the assessment for students in grades 3-8.

The state’s contract with Pearson goes through December for scoring and reporting of 2015-16 assessments, including high school exams, Part I grade 3-8 tests, and any completed Part II grade 3-8 exams.

McQueen said the estimated cost of the contract with Pearson is comparable to Measurement Inc.’s price for scoring tests. State officials say they’ve only paid Measurement Inc. $1.7 million of its nearly $108 million contract.

Measurement Inc. already has scored high school exams completed online last fall for students who are on block schedules. Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Townes said the state will use a formula to ensure that those scores are comparable to the scores of tests completed on paper, and to be graded by Pearson, this spring.

Due to the TNReady fiasco, much of the state’s accountability system, which is based almost entirely on end-of-year tests, is on hold. But McQueen said high school score reports, as well as grade 3-8 raw data, still will be shared with schools and districts in the fall.

Pearson is the nation’s largest testing vendor. In her letter Monday to superintendents, McQueen pointed out that Pearson scores NAEP, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” and currently is partnering with 25 states that include Kentucky, Virginia and Indiana. In Tennessee, the company has developed, administered and scored grades 3-8 tests and/or high school end-of-course exams from 2003 through 2014.

Pearson was among five vendors that applied to create Tennessee’s assessment in 2014 after the state backed out of PARCC, a consortium of states that planned to share a Common Core-aligned test. The state selected Measurement Inc. at the time because it had the lowest cost and scored highest on rubrics detailing test question development and technical capacity.

Pearson has had its own share of hiccups, specifically in scoring items. In 2013, the company admitted to major errors in the scoring of gifted-and-talented exams in New York City.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information, including the estimated cost of the contract and the timeline for hiring a new testing vendor.

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.