Miss. contracts for standardized tests in emergency vote after contract runs into questions

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JACKSON, Mississippi — The state Board of Education approved an emergency contract Thursday that means Mississippi's public school students will take multistate tests this year to evaluate student mastery of the Common Core state standards.

The board approved the $8.3 million contract with a unit of Pearson PLC in a closed session.

The one-year stopgap comes after the state Personal Service Contract Review Board told the Department of Education it would recommend rejection of the initial year of a four-year contract. The board ruled that the Department of Education should have solicited proposals from other vendors. The Department of Education withdrew the contract Friday.

Mississippi will have to sign a new contract after this year, opening the possibility that students will take whole new sets of tests two years in a row. Mississippi can't return to the prior exams administered last year, also written by Pearson, because tests are supposed to align with standards.

Some local school superintendents want Mississippi to adopt tests written by the ACT organization. Opponents of Common Core want Mississippi to drop both PARCC and the standards.

New Mexico, on behalf of the 12-state group called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, negotiated a deal with Pearson to write the tests. But Deanne Moseley executive director of the state Personnel Board, which oversees the contract review board, said New Mexico didn't follow Mississippi law.

"To be approved as a sole-source and awarded without competition, the service must be available from only a single supplier," Moseley said in a statement. "The company selected by New Mexico officials is not the only company which can provide these services."

Another testing company, the American Institutes for Research, sued New Mexico. The pending lawsuit claims the process unfairly favored Pearson. ACT and a second multistate group also offer Common Core tests.

Board of Education Chairman John Kelly of Gulfport said members had to approve an emergency contract Thursday because some high school students must take tests as early as December.

"Because of this timeline, we needed to make sure that these roughly 16,000 students and their schools would not be adversely affected by this issue," Kelly said in a statement.

Common Core was designed to standardize what students learn across states. Mississippi and 44 other states signed on, although opponents have attacked the effort as a federal takeover of education. The federal government gave money to PARCC and another multistate group to help develop tests.

PARCC supporters say the tests will help achieve Common Core's goal for students to not only memorize but understand what they learn. Rachel Canter, executive director of education policy group Mississippi First, fears without PARCC that "you're not going to reach that promise inherent in the new standards of pushing kids to really be critical thinkers."

Supporters also like multistate involvement, because Mississippi will be able to measure itself against highly-rated states such as Massachusetts and Maryland.

Tests influence how schools and districts are graded in Mississippi, how teachers are evaluated and whether high school students graduate.

Philip Mohr, an English teacher at Indianola's Gentry High School, said he and colleagues worked to adapt their own classroom tests to align with PARCC's multipart question structure and emphasis on timed writing. Changing tests would negate that work. He said further changes would also be bad for students.

"It gets pretty distracting for the students to have different kinds of tests, different formats, thrown at them," Mohr said.

A new procurement means Gov. Phil Bryant and state lawmakers could influence the decision before next year's elections.

State Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, led an unsuccessful fight to pull Mississippi out of Common Core last year. She wants Mississippi to choose another vendor.

"There are companies that could provide maybe a superior product, at a lesser price," she said.

Knox Graham, a spokesman for the Republican Bryant, said Bryant still has "has serious concerns about Common Core and PARCC testing. He expects the Mississippi Legislature will give both a serious look in the 2015 legislative session."


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