Friday, June 12, 2015

TOP STORY >> Testing change advice rejected

Leader senior staff writer

Without a consistent measuring stick, how can the state grade schools or determine when to release a district or school from academic distress, state Board of Education Member Jay Barth asked Thursday.

In voting with the majority 7-1 to reject Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s directive to dump the PARCC test used this year in favor of the ACT and ACT Aspire, Barth said, “What we cannot have is inconsistency and instability.”

The ACT would have been the third different assessment test in Arkansas in as many years, comparing apples to oranges to grapefruits.

The board then instructed, by the same 7-1 vote, the state Education Department to negotiate a new contract with PARCC for statewide testing in the 2015-16 school year. The current contract expires at the end of July.

PARCC is Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. It is closely tied to the Common Core curriculum, and the two have been widely disparaged, in part by a movement that claims it interferes with the ability of states to control their own curriculum.

Board of Education Chair-man Sam Ledbetter said he received some hateful emails Friday morning for failing to

support the governor’s effort to replace PARCC with the ACTs.

Terms expire at the end of this month for Ledbetter and Alice Williams Mahoney, and Kim Davis is accepting a job offer from the Walmart Foundation, so the governor will appoint three new board members. Former Gov. Mike Beebe appointed all of the current board members.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who chairs the Council on Common Core Review, said his council was still gathering information on Common Core at hearings around the state.

The board also unanimously approved a proposal that could, in time, provide a road map to reconfigure Pulaski County into five school districts — one south of the Arkansas River, four north — and tidy up the boundaries.

The Little Rock School District could include all public schools and students south of the river, while Jacksonville-North Pulaski, Sherwood, Maumelle and North Little Rock might each have their own district. By that time, the Pulaski County Special School District would cease to exist.

Jacksonville-North Pulaski has been cleared by the judge in the federal desegregation case, the state Board of Education, voters and PCSSD itself to detach, and now has its own board, interim superintendent, superintendent-elect, deputy superintendents, lawyers, financial advisors, chief of staff and facilities experts on board in advance of actual operation, which will begin with the 2016-17 school year.

But, until PCSSD has been declared unitary – desegregated — in all categories, neither Sherwood nor Maumelle can detach and every other proposed change affecting the district must be approved by the judge to ensure that it either advances or is neutral in terms of desegregation.

Detachment of Sherwood and Maumelle would follow the course set by the courts and lawmakers to enable the Jacksonville detachment.

Ledbetter, who also served on Barth’s school district boundary committee, said he agreed with the proposal, but warned in a separate, attached statement, “I am concerned that this proposal has the potential to concentrate kids, particularly those in the district south of the river, into pockets of poverty and further exacerbate segregation along racial lines.

“We have learned from our experience with the detachment of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District that creating new districts from the Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD) is very complex,” according to Ledbetter.

He noted that issues relating to division of assets, debt and personnel have been very challenging. “The statute that deals with detachment may need to be revised in light of this experience,” he said.

Throughout Pulaski County, there’s “some real passion involved,” Ledbetter said. “People really care deeply about the current structure and have aspirations toward the future.

“It’s not going to go away, but we’ve learned through this detach with Jacksonville it’s an enormously complex task.”

Endorsing a process that — once unitary — is up to a future state board that will consider reassessment of the lines.

Timing will matter enormously. The state has special powers right now.

That’s because, with PCSSD in fiscal distress and Little Rock in academic distress, Education Commissioner Johnny Key is the de facto board of all Pulaski County districts except North Little Rock. If not for the desegregation agreement, it would be much easier to stand up new districts and move boundaries around.

“It’s not meant as a signal to the governor,” Ledbetter said about the vote on testing, “it’s just that there are concerns that we had. There’s not much question that this whole thing has become politicized by certain folks who see an agenda there.”

In discussing the governor’s proposal, much of the board’s concern was with the process and the compressed time frame to make such a change, and with how it lacked transparency and would allow the governor’s appointed Council on Common Core Review to make decisions that should be made by professionals at the state Education Department.

“The governor made a recommendation, but it’s the board’s authority to determine what (testing) tool to use,” Ledbetter said.

In supporting the change, the lieutenant governor’s Council on Common Core Review cited the national recognition of ACT; the comparability between states; the minimal time spent testing relative to PARCC (about half the time of PARCC); and the ACT’s and ACT-Aspire’s relevance to students.

Former Education Department assessment specialist Dana Breitweiser said she was “shocked at the governor’s decision to place the assessment of our students solely in the hands of an assessment company without oversight by the ADE.”

She challenged the recommendation. “Aspire’s stand-alone writing prompts are not aligned to Common Core Writing Standard 9, which requires students to write in response to texts,” she said. “In math, at the high school level, an alignment study would have shown the Aspire-integrated math test is not aligned to our Algebra I standards. “

“Had the (Council on Common Core Review) done its due diligence, it would have discovered that the Aspire test of combined ‘science practices’ is in no way aligned to Arkansas’ biology content standards,” Breitweiser said.

“This is arriving to us without a contract and bidding,” said Board Member Vicki Saviors. “They’ve taken away our power to negotiate.”

“Who dropped the ball on procurement?” asked Board Member Toyce Newton. “There was no process. It’s not clean, and it doesn’t align with good business practices.

“We don’t know as citizens and taxpayers that there isn’t another process that trumps that three fold,” she said.

“This is not an endorsement of PARCC, but a vote for processes,” Davis said.