Spin Cycle

News, views and commentary on Long Island, state and national politics.

Rarely does a change of state vendors become such big news.

But when it was revealed last week that the Pearson Education firm would be dropped as developer of tests for New York students in grades 3-8, a summertime buzz began over the Common Core curriculum.

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For starters, the selection of Minnesota-based Questar Assessments over Pearson for a five-year, $44 million state contract marks a first change under new Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

Elia said in a pointedly diplomatic statement, "New York State teachers will be involved in every step of the test development process." Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch described the goal as to "continue to improve" the testing and "provide the instructional support parents and teachers need."

Critics of the nation's current emphasis on high-stakes testing regard the international Pearson company as the top corporate player in a growing education-industrial complex.

Hofstra University professor Alan Singer has for years traced Pearson's path as "one of the most aggressive companies seeking to profit from what they and others euphemistically call educational reform." He said replacing Pearson with the lesser-known Questar leaves open the wider issues involving these exams, raised in the recent "opt-out" movement.

"No one seems to know much about Questar Assessment, the new testing company," he told Newsday. "The big difference seems to be that Pearson delivered packaged exams with questions used in multiple states that were sealed to avoid public disclosure and review. Questar promises they will develop tests consulting local stakeholders and meeting specific New York State needs.

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"If this is true and possible, it should help the state avoid law suits claiming the tests do not measure what is taught or are discriminatory. A question for me is why State Education signed a multiyear contract while the renewal of No Child Left Behind is being debated in Congress and no one knows for sure which direction the federal government will take on mandated high-stakes standardized testing."

"We will continue to serve the people of New York through our other assessment work, along with learning materials and higher education services."

Tensions arose with the company over its handling of test questions and data. Also, in 2013, Democratic state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman reached a $7.7 million settlement with Pearson's charitable affiliate over his allegations that it developed course materials the company intended to sell commercially.

The politics of it go beyond contracting.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's 2014 Republican challenger, promptly directed another in a continuing series of barbs at the governor over the state's Common Core implementation.

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"Switching companies to administer Common Core testing is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Astorino said. "Our children are still being faced with an untested experiment whose standards, some renowned education experts say, are of 'poor quality.'

"But it also begs the question: why did Governor Cuomo have so much faith in Pearson three years ago If Pearson is bad enough to fire, why were they good enough to hand to our kids in the first place.

"The Governor very clearly demonstrated his support for Pearson, including when he appointed David Wakelyn Deputy Secretary for Education, a former policymaker for a leading Pearson subdivision. When will the governor admit what thousands of parents and teachers already know: Common Core has been a disastrous failure and needs to be replaced with better standards, developed by New York educators with input from local teachers and parents."