Thursday, August 09, 2012

Questions Dog Common-Test Development

In our view, it is an obvious conflict of interest for 
PARCC contractors, paid with public funds to help develop 
PARCC’s assessments, simultaneously to pursue a business strategy 
that depends on or benefits from the failure of PARCC, SBAC, or both.
--PARCC Governing Board to Pearson CEO

This from Education Week

ACT gives up contract for common assessments
On the verge of signing a contract to help design assessments for the common standards, ACT Inc. has withdrawn from the project amid conflict-of-interest questions sparked by its own development of a similar suite of tests.

Even though it involves only a small subcontract, the move by the Iowa-based test-maker, and the questions from the state assessment consortium that propelled it, have set off ripples of reaction and reflection in the insular educational testing industry. That industry is reshaping itself in response to the unprecedented project by two big groups of states to create new tests for the Common Core State Standards, using $360 million in federal Race to the Top money.

The discussions offer a glimpse into some of the thorny issues that crop up as the two gargantuan assessment projects move forward. How does each group manage intellectual-property concerns and potentially competing interests when 20-plus states and hundreds of players are involved? Even as those questions elude easy answers, the stakes are bigger than ever.

“This work has really changed the game,” said Douglas J. McRae, who spent 40 years in the testing industry before retiring, including overseeing K-12 test development at the McGraw Hill Cos. in the 1990s. “In the past, when vendors have done [test] work for individual states, those products haven’t generally been marketable to other states. Now there is a bigger market, with much more money hanging on it.”

Success and Failure

The two prime contractors, ETS and Pearson, won contracts totaling $23 million to design the first 18,000 items in the consortium’s test bank.
The contract from which ACT withdrew earlier this month was the biggest that the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, or PARCC, has awarded so far in designing tests for its 24 member states. Pearson and the Educational Testing Service won contracts totaling $23 million to design the first 18,000 items in the consortium’s test bank.

Those two prime contractors brought 10 subcontractors aboard to do pieces of the work; Pearson chose ACT to review test items, a subcontract valued at $113,000.

As the contracts were being finalized in late June, PARCC officials heard rumors that one or more of the vendors planned to announce a suite of computer-based formative and summative tests spanning grades 3-11 and designed to measure college and career readiness—similar to what PARCC planned.
The nine state schools chiefs on PARCC’s executive committee sent a letter July 2Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to all the vendors, saying that the success of such a suite of tests “depends on or benefits from the failure” of PARCC and the other testing group, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, so it creates “an inevitable conflict between the firm’s dedication to PARCC” and to its own project.

The chiefs asked each vendor to respond by detailing any plans to make such tests, describing how the two projects could be kept sufficiently separate, and assuring them that the vendor’s “top personnel” would be devoted to the PARCC work, to avoid “undermining PARCC’s objectives.”

In a July 6 responseRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, Jon L. Erickson, the president of ACT’s education division, said its forthcoming Next Generation Assessment System, announced publicly only four days earlier, was a “natural evolution” of its college and career testing that had been in the planning stages for several years. It was “not created as a result of, nor designed to directly compete against” the PARCC or SBAC systems, Mr. Erickson wrote.

The ACT system, which employs existing company products such as the widely used EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT tests, as anchors and expands into earlier grades, will include science as well as literacy and math assessments and is expected to gauge a range of student behaviors seen as pivotal to future success, such as career goals.

Because of its long history contracting with multiple states simultaneously, Mr. Erickson’s letter said, ACT has established strict procedures that prevent any conflicts of interest and protect its clients’ intellectual property. ACT’s subcontract, Mr. Erickson pointed out, involved item review, not item development. But “given the spirit” of PARCC’s letter, he said, ACT consulted with Pearson and decided to withdraw to “avoid any perceived conflict of interest or action detrimental to PARCC or its member states.”

Pearson, in a July 4 letterRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, detailed the state assessment contracts that “could be considered, by some, as alternatives to, or indirectly ‘competing’ with PARCC,” such as its tests for grades 3-8 in New York and Illinois. The company also described its extensive work for other entities, including contracted and proposed work for Smarter Balanced and online test delivery, scoring, and reporting for the new ACT assessments that had prompted concerns within PARCC.

None of those projects interferes with its item-development work for PARCC, Douglas G. Kubach, Pearson’s president and chief executive officer, said in the letter, since the publishing giant is accustomed to “managing multiple large-scale assessment programs and successfully protecting our customers’ confidentiality and intellectual property.” Out of an “abundance of caution,” however, and to avoid “even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Pearson had decided to release ACT from its role as a subcontractor, Mr. Kubach wrote...

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