The state awarded a new five-year deal to Questar Assessment Inc., a Minneapolis-based company that has emerged in recent years as a smaller competitor to Pearson, the dominant vendor in the country’s lucrative standardized testing market. The switch allows the state to distance itself from Pearson, which has faced intense criticism for missteps and errors included in its New York tests and become symbolic of broader concerns about the privatization of public education.
The new $44 million contract, which was not released and is still under review by the state’s attorney general and comptroller, is more expensive than Pearson’s $32 million contract. But it likely includes a requirement to design computer-based exams for use in spring 2017 in addition to paper-and-pencil tests for third through eighth grades in math and English.
The computer-based tests would inch the state closer toward adopting “next generation assessments” that many states are adopting as part of their effort to adopt the Common Core standards. New York is part of a consortium of states, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, that agreed to roll out the computer-based tests this year. But New York has held off on implementing those PARCC exams created by the consortium, which several states have exited in recent years as they commissioned tests of their own.
The change is the first high-profile announcement by new state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who started on Monday and is facing a growing movement of parents opposed to the state’s testing program altogether. Roughly 200,000 students across the state, or nearly 20 percent, opted out of taking this year’s Pearson tests, a movement that has grown in response to concerns that the exam’s contents are inappropriate and poorly aligned to the state’s new standards.
Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the new tests will be more useful for teachers and parents.
“Our goal is to continue to improve the assessments to make sure they provide the instructional support parents and teachers need to prepare our students for college and careers,” Tisch said in a statement.
Though state education officials have long emphasized that teachers were involved in the test development process, they suggested that extra engagement will be added as the new tests are created.
“New York State teachers will be involved in every step of the test development process,” Elia said. “Teacher input is critical to building a successful state test, and that’s why the new contract emulates the collaborative process used to develop the Regents Exams.”
Pearson has had a checkered history in New York.
In 2012, the Pearson-made tests included several errors, including a widely ridiculed reading passage with the nonsensical theme, “Pineapples don’t wear sleeves.” In response, the state forced Pearson to change the way it selects and edits reading passages and to hire an outside expert to review its test-development process. Critics have also faulted the tests for including reading passages drawn from published texts that feature product names, and for a “gag order” that keeps educators from discussing test items. (Pearson has said the state education department is behind that ban.)
With Pearson’s contract set to expire this December, the state has been officially shopping for a new contract since February. New York joins a growing number of states getting rid of Pearson: Florida and Ohio replaced the company with American Institutes for Research, and Pearson lost a bulk of Texas’ testing contract in May. Indiana ended its contract with Pearson earlier this year as well and split the contract into parts that went to six different companies. One of those companies is Questar, which will receive $7.5 million to design end-of-course high school exams.
Switching to Questar means that New York students will be taking a different test for the third time in five years. Before Pearson began its testing in 2012, the state used McGraw-Hill.
“Pearson has had a worse track record than anyone else, not just with computer-based testing but also dating back to its paper-and-pencil tests,” said Bob Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest, which monitors standardized testing trends nationally.
But Schaeffer said that other testing companies have not fared much better, adding that New York’s switch to Questar did not automatically signal an improvement.
“The question is, when a new smaller company takes on a huge state contract,” Schaeffer said, “do they have the capacity to do it right?”
Questar was awarded a 10-year contract to develop state tests for Mississippi in April. A Questar spokesperson did not immediately respond to email messages.
Pearson spokeswoman Laura Howe said the company spends nearly $800 million annually to research new learning and testing models and is constantly working to improve the quality of its assessments. She added that the company will continue to offer other assessments, learning materials, and higher-education services in New York.
“Pearson has a long, proud history of serving students, parents and educators in New York,” she said in a statement. “While we are disappointed that we were not awarded the grade 3-8 testing contract, our commitment to New York is unwavering.”