New Mexico is in the midst of a high-stakes testing showdown and its not just playing out between politicians in the Roundhouse.
You see, every time a student takes a new high-stakes test, an out-of-state company makes a profit. And they are making a lot of profit on New Mexico kids.
To catch up on the debate raging (and about to get bigger) around NM testing, here’s what you need to know:
When Susana Martinez took office in 2011, she appointed Jeb Bush’s education chief, Hanna Skandera, to lead New Mexico’s public education department, even though she had never taught a day in a classroom.
What Skandera does know about education comes from her time on the board of several organizations which push standardized testing. At least one was recently exposed for paying Skandera’s expenses to meet with for-profit testing companies at a private luxury resort meet up. More on that later.
When Martinez/Skandera took over in New Mexico, they announced that the current graduation program (the Standards Based Assessment, or SBA, you or your kids probably took) had to go. They replaced it with PARCC assessments (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which were much more heavily reliant on testing, allowing fewer hours for actual classroom teaching.
Martinez’s education chief, Hanna Skandera, knows a lot about this new PARCC testing because she sits on the board of PARCC, the organization pushing the new wave of testing on states.
But PARCC only sets the standards against which students are relentlessly tested. PARCC is supported by other groups like the Foundation for Education Excellence (FEE), which Skandera also co-leads. And PARCC hired Pearson to create and administer the tests schools would be required to purchase and could never see.
Pearson is a not-for-profit arm of the for-profit Pearson, Inc. and it is widely criticized for improperly using that tax-free status to produce profits for its corporate arm.
From Huffington Post’s Alan Singer:
As a full service Common Core operation, not only does Pearson provide the assessments, but it delivers textbooks, test prep material, and online support. It is also produces the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests that will be administered by a consortium of a dozen states and the District of Columbia.
A lot of money was to be made by the testing industry thanks to Presidents Bush and Obama. As the Wall Street Journal and the Thomas Fordham Institute explained, the national cost for compliance with the Common Core standards would be between $1 billion to $8 billion and the profits would go almost directly to publishers. Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson’s K-12 division, virtually jumped for joy exclaiming, “It’s a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we’re involved in.” In an annual report to investors, Pearson highlighted how it provides tests to twenty-three states and also developed the online application for Common Core mandated assessments in a total of forty-five states. James Mason, a PARCC state leader who helped negotiate the contract with Pearson, told Education Week that depending on a “number of factors,” the Pearson contract with PARCC was of an “unprecedented scale.”
Pearson is also a frequent target of criticism for its business practices and cozy relationships with state school executives who manage their contracts. Here’s one example from national education reporter Diane Ravich:
A POLITICO investigation has found that Pearson stands to make tens of millions in taxpayer dollars and cuts in student tuition from deals arranged without competitive bids in states from Florida to Texas. The review also found Pearson’s contracts set forth specific performance targets — but don’t penalize the company when it fails to meet those standards. And in the higher ed realm, the contracts give Pearson extensive access to personal student data, with few constraints on how it is used.
And our own Hanna Skandera is not immune from having cozy connections. As is normal, when scandal comes up in the national press, a New Mexican is often in the story. From the Washington Post in 2013:
A nonprofit group released thousands of e-mails today and said they show how a foundation begun by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and national education reform leader, is working with public officials in states to write education laws that could benefit some of its corporate funders.
[The Foundation for Public Interest] said companies ask the foundation (Foundation for Excellence in Education, FEE) to help state officials pass laws and regulations that make it easier to expand charter schools, require students to take online education courses, and do other things that could result in business and profits for them. The e-mails show, Cohen said, that Bush’s foundation would often do this with the help of Chiefs for Change and other affiliated groups… it is known that the foundation has received support from for-profit companies K12 and Pearson and Amplify.
In New Mexico, FEE acted as a broker to organize meetings between their corporate donors and individual Chiefs…
FEE staff served as advisers to acting education commissioner Hanna Skandera. FEE, and, by extension, its donors, had great influence over New Mexico legislation. In a Jan., 2011, e-mail, Skandera directs a staffer from the legislature to forward all education bills to FEE’s Christy Hovanetz for edits: “Can you send all Governor’s office ed bill language to Christy, including social promotion?” Another FEE staffer, Mary Laura Bragg, wrote to Skandera, “I’m at your beck and call.”…
The e-mails indicate that FEE paid for Skandera’s travel, reimbursing New Mexico $3382.91 for her expenses, including trip to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress.
But Skandera has moved ahead to institute Pearson’s testing programs, despite claims that the company charges unnecessarily high costs on districts and taxpayers who fund them. The publication Education Week covered this New Mexico lawsuit:
A decision to give the education vendor Pearson a major, potentially lucrative contract for common-core testing is being challenged by a competitor that claims the award was made through a process that was unfair and biased in favor of the eventual winner.
The American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based organization that has a substantial place in the testing field, has filed a legal action in New Mexico state court that argues the contract was awarded in a process that was illegal, and structured in a way that wrongly benefited one company—Pearson.
The AIR initially filed a protest with New Mexico state officials six months ago, not long after the invitation for bids on behalf of a group of common-core states—those belonging to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing consortium—was issued. The state rejected that protest, saying it hadn’t been filed within the required time window…
The potentially huge scope of the work is described in the language of the New Mexico contract with Pearson. It says that anywhere between 5.5 million and 10 million students would be tested annually, with a projected per-student cost of testing in the new contract of about $24. That estimate is a decrease of more than $5 per student from the previous price tag.
That’s $240 million, per year, taxpayers are paying for this new test that doesn’t seem to do much except make money.
So far, results haven’t been any better than the planning.
“Shoddy” tests and “discombobulated” processes
Instead of building new classrooms to alleviate over-crowding or fix up schools lacking adequate heat or reading space, schools are now required to use new state-fed education money to build new computer labs that can only be used for tests.
And parents and teachers who took the practice test in November called the tests “shoddy” and said they weren’t confident the tests demonstrated proficiency.
Rio Rancho school leaders said this to the Albuquerque Journal: “Is this going to totally screw up instructional time,” asked board vice president Don Schlichte. “This just seems so discombobulated.”
And with just days to go before testing begins, some schools seem to have big problems even getting the tests up and running.
In Albuquerque, test runs found that half of the computers in one school did not have the right software to run the tests, while many students who could get online couldn’t log on.
But as the testing deadline draws near (most districts start testing on the first Monday in March), a new movement by parents and students to opt-out or walk out of the tests has districts and the state scrambling to respond.
That’s because if more than 5% of a school’s parents opt out, the school’s grade (in the new A-F school grading system) is lowered because it is based on student testing participation. And a school’s grade is tied to a principal’s evaluation (and pay) and teacher performance and evaluation down the line.
See! Everyone gets paid to test our kids. Even when parents have a right to say no.
Want to learn more about the ways school districts are misleading parents and the brave teachers and educators standing up to new testing?
We profiled some of the best (and worst) of both in our post here.