School & District Management

Okla. Assessments in a State of Uncertainty

By Sean Cavanagh — October 10, 2014 5 min read
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Disruptions of statewide tests are not uncommon, but Oklahoma officials are now grappling with a different and, in some ways, more fundamental problem: trying to find a company to meet a pressing need to deliver online assessments to thousands of students.

Oklahoma has landed in that predicament after a testing vendor, McGraw-Hill Education CTB, informed the state last month that it was withdrawing from consideration for a contract to deliver exams this winter that are a primary option for many students to secure high school diplomas.

CTB, a Monterey, Calif.-based company and one of the country’s best-known test providers, had been roundly criticized by elected officials and school administrators for a series of mishaps on computer-based statewide assessments overseen by the vendor the previous two years. This summer, Oklahoma’s state board of education voted to not renew CTB’s work with the state, citing frustration with the company’s performance.

But state officials also needed a company to deliver the high school exams, known as end-of-instruction tests, scheduled to begin in early December. Reasoning that no other company could arrange to do the work in such a short time period, the state education department recommended that the board of education approve a sole-source deal to CTB worth $2.8 million to handle that testing work.

Not long afterward, that plan unraveled. On Sept. 25, the state board voted to delay consideration of the contract, prompting CTB officials to back out, saying the delay would thwart their ability to carry out the exams.

“We have been informed that the board has ‘tabled’ any decision on CTB’s work for at least two weeks,” the company wrote in a letter to the state. “Based on this delay, there is no feasible way CTB can meet the deadlines contemplated.”

New Search Begins

Oklahoma officials have not yet decided whether to put forward a new request for proposals for vendors to conduct the winter tests, said Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the state department of education. State law requires end-of-instruction exams to be given during three windows throughout the year, though not necessarily in December, she said.

In addition, the state is planning to release two separate RFPs, for exams CTB had previously conducted: one for other end-of-instruction exams that begin in the spring, and are conducted throughout the year; the other for social studies and science tests in grades 3-8.

Seeking to hire a testing vendor on such a compressed timetable is “extremely rare” in the world of state testing, said Barry Topol, a managing partner for the Assessment Solutions Group, a Danville, Calif.-based company that consults on testing. He questioned whether assessment companies would want to take on that task.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult for the state to pull this off and get vendors to respond,” Mr. Topol predicted, particularly if the state could not guarantee that vendors would not face legal liability if problems arose.

The state made a mistake in putting off a deal with CTB without a certain fallback plan, he said.

“They should have done this sooner,” meaning lock in a deal with a new vendor, Mr. Topol added, or, alternately, “let [CTB] run through another test cycle.”

Students must pass a total of four of seven of the end-of-instruction exams across subjects to graduate from high school, though the state allows other options, such as completing end-of-course projects or achieving an acceptable score on approved, alternate tests, said Ms. Pemberton.

Steven Crawford, the executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, which represents school and district leaders, said he did not blame the board for not approving CTB’s contract, given the relatively short time the panel had to consider the deal. He predicted the state might have to arrange an alternative test to meet graduation requirements.

“I expect the state to tell schools what the options are,” he said. “I don’t expect them to be great options.”

About 50,000 tests were scheduled to be given around the state beginning in early December, most of them end-of-instruction exams and most of them to be delivered online. Students can also take the tests in the spring or summer, Ms. Pemberton said.

The uncertainty that looms over the winter tests is just the latest abrupt turn for Oklahoma’s education system, which has gone through fractious debates on standards and tests over the past year.

In May, Oklahoma’s GOP-controlled legislature voted to repeal the state’s earlier adoption of the Common Core State Standards. The measure was signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who earlier this year had defended the standards, but later renounced them.

Oklahoma has not yet created new standards to replace the common core. For the time being, the state is using its pre-common-core standards in math and English/language arts, meaning its tests are supposed to match those benchmarks, Ms. Pemberton said. But that circumstance, too, has brought complications: In August, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan revoked Oklahoma’s waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, saying the state’s standards do not prepare students for college or careers.

District Anxiety

Election-year politics have added to the volatility in Oklahoma. In June, the state’s current superintendent of schools, Janet Barresi, was soundly defeated in the Republican primary by Joy Hofmeister, a former teacher and state board member who will face the winner of a Democratic primary.

Ms. Barresi was an initial supporter of the standards, but her campaign later backed away from that position. Her term ends in January, though she has also faced calls to resign before then. (The department said Ms. Barresi was not available for an interview.)

The state’s back-and-forth on standards, and the uncertainty over the winter tests, has frustrated many teachers and parents, said Linda S. Hampton, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, a 35,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. If the winter testing is delayed or disrupted, the state should find a way to limit the impact on students by giving them additional options to fulfill diploma requirements, she said.

Pointing to the previous mishaps on the state test under CTB, Ms. Hampton said the state needs to do much more planning to ensure that schools are ready for the content of the tests, and have the technology to carry them out.

“We’re not against accountability,” she said. “But we have to do it right.”

Shawn Hime, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, which has 2,700 members across the state, said he agreed with the state board’s decision this summer to not renew CTB’s contract. “The trust was gone,” he said.

But he added that the state should have had a clearer plan for staging the winter exams.

“Most of us feel this thing could have been avoided if we took the politics out of it and did what’s best for students,” Mr. Hime said. “Changing testing vendors happens all the time in states around the country. But when it does, it doesn’t usually put you in this situation.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Okla. Assessments in a State of Uncertainty

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