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New firm gets $44M contract to develop New York's Common Core tests

Students take notes during a lecture on May

Students take notes during a lecture on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

New York State is bringing in a new company to produce its controversial Common Core tests for grades 3 through 8 and move the state's approximately 700 public school districts into an era of computerized exams.

The State Education Department awarded a $44-million, five-year contract to Questar Assessment Inc., and the agreement will give teachers a greater role in test development, top officials said. One of the losing bidders for the contract was Pearson Education, a London-based firm that has produced the state's tests since 2011.

Pearson, like the McGraw-Hill company that preceded it in publishing the state's standardized exams, encountered withering criticism from teachers and parents for what they described as poorly written questions and technical gaffes in test administration.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who took the department's leadership post Monday, sought Thursday to reassure teachers. Educators on Long Island and elsewhere in the state have complained in recent years they felt shut out of decisions that shaped testing.

"New York State teachers will be involved in every step of the test development process," Elia said in a statement.

Teachers and school administrators applauded the move. "I think it's great that it's someone other than Pearson," said Jack Bierwirth, a testing expert who recently retired as the Herricks district's superintendent. "They had created a lot of ill will both for themselves and the State Education Department."

Bierwirth is former co-chair of a testing committee for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The department provided few details on teacher involvement Thursday, and representatives of New York State United Teachers, a statewide union umbrella group, cautioned that they had not yet reviewed Questar's contract. The company is based in Minneapolis and has offices in Brewster in upstate Putnam County.

A union spokesman, Carl Korn, said his organization hopes that teachers will be allowed not only to review questions written for the grade 3-8 assessments, but also to join with test producers in writing those questions. Elia appeared Thursday to endorse that approach, saying Questar's contract calls for the same "collaborative" process used by the state in developing high school Regents exams.

Parent leaders of a test-boycott movement were less impressed. As many as 200,000 students across the state were pulled out of April tests in English Language Arts and mathematics by parents protesting the stresses created by Common Core tests, with students' scores linked to teacher evaluations.

"We know the tests are still being used to evaluate teachers, and as long as that happens I will urge other parents to continue opting their children out of the tests," said Allison White, a Port Washington parent. She is active in a local group, Advocates for Public Education, whose members have participated in test boycotts.

Questar will develop tests for the state's next round of assessments in April 2016, using some questions written by Pearson, Education Department officials said. The companies' contracts, both covering five years, overlap in 2015-16.

"Pearson offered a bad product and today Pearson got fired," said Karen Magee, president of the state teachers union.

Jamie Post Candee, Questar's president and CEO, issued a statement saying his company is "delighted to partner" with New York State.

Pearson spokeswoman Laura Howe said, "While we are disappointed that we were not awarded the grade 3-8 testing contract, our commitment to New York is unwavering."

Questar, like other testing companies, has taken its share of criticism in states where it has held contracts. Nonetheless, school leaders on Long Island and elsewhere in New York see concrete reasons for optimism over the new contract.

One reason is that the State Legislature is providing $8.4 million for test development in 2015-16, with about $3 million of that invested in computerized testing. Another hopeful factor is voters' approval in November of a $2 billion Smart Schools bond issue that will give local districts extra money to upgrade computer systems.

These new investments, combined with the Questar contract, indicate that New York State will continue using its own tests for grades 3-8, rather than switching to a set of exams developed by a multistate group known as PARCC, analysts said Thursday.State officials have voiced concern that changing over to PARCC's tests would create more turmoil, though some testing experts see this as a way of maintaining standards.

Computer-based tests offer a number of advantages over traditional paper-and-pencil forms, including the potential to more accurately measure a student's potential. This is done through electronic systems that automatically move students who have answered questions correctly on to higher levels of questions.

Education Department officials said the contract with Questar provides that the firm will produce test administration and delivery systems that can be used by computers in public, nonpublic and charter schools alike.

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