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AZ faces array of choices for its new educational test

With Arizona students about a year away from testing on the state’s new learning standards, the State Board of Education is well on its way to choosing which testing company to use.

Six companies responded to a request for information on their tests to the board and state Department of Education in December. Now the board’s executive director, Christine Thompson, is using the information, including estimated costs, to draft a request for proposal to go out in March. She said the plan is to decide on a company by June or July.

Thompson said the board relied on in-house procurement help when it came to the current AIMS test. But she’s recruiting technical experts to help write the request to stave off any conflicts that might arise from the state’s membership in an association that is creating the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, test.

PARCC was one of the vendors that responded to the request for information. Arizona has a strong presence in PARCC, including Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who is on the PARCC Governing Board, and Eileen Klein, Arizona Board of Regents president, who is on the PARCC Advisory Committee on College Readiness.

PARCC, which still hasn’t produced a test, is supposed to be specially designed for Common Core, the learning standards for math and English that 46 states, including Arizona, have adopted.

The new standards

Arizona, which refers to Common Core as Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, adopted them in 2010 and has incrementally implemented them to all grades. Students will begin testing on them in the spring of 2015.

Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed $13.5 million in new spending to pay for the test.

This year’s 10th-graders will be the last group of students who will take AIMS, a high stakes test that determines whether a student graduates from high school and was designed to hold schools accountable. Students will not be required to pass the new test to graduate, but it will be used in the state’s A-F grading system for schools and to determine whether a third grader can read well enough to advance to the fourth grade.

Powerhouses of testing

Although Huppenthal called the group of vendors who responded to the request for information the powerhouses in the testing industry, it was just a sample of companies out there. He said some states got as many as 11 responses to their requests for information.

Missing from the group was Smarter Balanced, another association of states which, like PARCC, received funding from the federal government to develop a test for Common Core.

Among those that did respond was Pearson, which is listed as PARCC’s vendor and also the company that administers AIMS.

Huppenthal said he couldn’t comment on the company’s performance, but he did say AIMS was one of the least expensive tests in the nation, something to take into account when thinking of the shortcomings of AIMS.

Pearson mentioned in its request for information that it has 650 full-time and 1,500 part-time employees based in Arizona.

Dean Andy Porter of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, an expert on student assessments, said most standardized tests are of good quality, but the main things to look at it when choosing one is its reliability, its alignment to the standards and whether it is fair.

“No use testing if you can’t get reliable scores,” Porter said.

For instance, a vendor should have an independent third party attest that the test is aligned to the standards.

“Where a contractor usually falls down is in terms of the distribution and administration of the assessments,” Porter said. “That’s where problems arose in Atlanta with cheating, by the way.”

A grand jury in August indicted 35 teachers and superintendents in connection with a cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools.

Porter, who is on technical panels to help three states choose vendors, said the test was of good quality, but there were no security measures in place to keep teachers from cheating even though retention and salaries were based on student test scores.

Huppenthal said he’s looking for a test that has “ironclad reliability” to ensure the integrity of the state’s school accountability system and to make sure a passing grade means a student is ready for college or a career, rather than mediocre.

He said the new test is also an opportunity to get past the imperfections of AIMS.  One problem was that it is a norm-referenced test, which means students are scored in comparison to each other, and isn’t as reliable.

“It is especially critical the new test accurately measure the abilities of students at the high end, students who have the potential to lead the world, and that it be more accurate at the low end, where our students are at risk of ending up in jail, prison or on welfare,” Huppenthal said.

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