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Panel on exams takes next step

Testimony finished, council wrapping up ‘listening tour’ by Cynthia Howell | May 26, 2015 at 3:13 a.m.

The Governor's Council on Common Core Review concluded five days and 40 hours of testimony last week on the education standards and standardized tests used in the state's 237 public school districts and 18 charter school systems.

The 16-member council of educators, business leaders and parents from across the state -- led by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin -- will now conduct four more "listening tour stops" in different cities before submitting findings and recommendations about the in-state future of Common Core State Standards and its accompanying standardized testing program to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

The governor wanted a preliminary report in the early summer and the council's final report by the fall.

"We're ambitious and aggressive, and we're going to have this whole thing wrapped up at the very latest at the end of June," Griffin said. "What I'd like to do is basically be ready to close it out as soon as the last listening tour stop is over," which will be June 18.

"A lot of people already have a good sense of where they are on this, barring some great change in the narrative at some of these listening tour stops. The initial recommendations will be audibles from me to the governor and, subject to change, maybe, the final will be written. I'm thinking we'll put some findings together and we'll have recommendations."

The timeline has implications for the state's use of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams that are based on the standards and were fully administered statewide for the first time this school year.

Debbie Jones, assistant commissioner for learning services in the Arkansas Department of Education, said state officials have to sign a contract by July 1 for the use of reconfigured PARCC exams in the coming 2015-16 school year.

"Until that PARCC contract is signed on July 1, nothing is definite," Jones said. "A lot of it depends on the direction of the governor and the council."

"We are sure we will still have high-quality testing next year," Jones added. "We are sure that they will make good recommendations and we will be allowed to make a good decision, whatever direction that may be. It will be a good decision for the state."

Hutchinson appointed the council in March to evaluate and make recommendations about the Common Core State Standards in math and English/language arts that were adopted by the Arkansas Board of Education in July 2010 and were phased into the state's public schools over three years: kindergarten through second grades in 2011-12, third through eighth grades in 2012-13, and ninth through 12th grades in 2013-14.

The common set of standards regarding what students should know and be able to do started as an initiative of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor's Association. The standards have been adopted by a large majority of the 50 states. The standards serve as the basis for curriculum, classroom instruction and testing.

Arkansas is part of a smaller group of states -- the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- that went on to develop online exams for third through eighth grades and high school based on the Common Core State Standards. The PARCC exams replace the Arkansas Benchmark and End-of-Course exams. Arkansas and all other states are required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 to give annual tests in math and literacy and hold schools and districts accountable for the results.

Some parents, educators and policymakers in Arkansas and across the country have objected to the common set of standards, saying in part that the standards are too difficult for the assigned grade levels or aren't challenging enough. The PARCC exams have been criticized for taking too much time away from instruction and for making excessive technology demands on schools.

Alarms also have been raised by some parents, educators and policymakers about security breaches by hackers or the possible sharing of personally identifiable student information with the federal government without parental consent. PARCC and Arkansas leaders told the governor's council that individually identifiable data are not shared with the federal government and that testing vendors are required by their contracts with the state to adhere to privacy and security provisions.

The Arkansas council spent five days, for eight hours a day, listening to and questioning panels of Arkansas Education Department leaders, public school teachers in math and English, testing coordinators, college faculty, testing company representatives, parents and advocacy organizations.

Video recordings of the sessions are available on the lieutenant governor's website.

Griffin said last week after the final day of panel presentations that he anticipates the council members will convene again, probably by teleconference, to develop its conclusions.

"I'll put pen to paper to write it up," he said. "We'll probably have a call where I'll read it to them to see if they are cool with it."

Griffin told the council that he anticipates the written findings and recommendations to be only a page or two.

"It won't be 50 pages with 150 footnotes," Griffin said. "I don't think that will help the governor. He wants to know the general direction, and he can dig down and make the final decision. I think it helps the state -- both the citizens and the government -- the quicker we can put our phase behind us and put it on the governor's desk and let him make the final decision."

There are no set rules for the council, Griffin said later about how it's producing the recommendations.

"I figure it's fair if a majority agrees," he said in an interview. "I'm trying to get as close to unanimity as possible. I think we're going to get there. So I'll read it, get agreement on it. Once everybody says, 'Yes, we're cool,' we'll probably put it out as a press release and give it to the governor. We'll coordinate with the governor. It's for the governor, but we'll make it public."

The remaining listening tour stops' times, dates and locations are:

• 5-7 p.m. today, Fred Dierks Building, Eisele Auditorium, National Park Community College, 101 College Drive, Hot Springs.

• 5-7 p.m. June 9, Edwards Commons, Maxfield Room, Lyon College, 2300 Highland Road, Batesville.

• 5-7 p.m., June 16, L.A. Davis Sr. Student Union, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, 1200 University Drive, Pine Bluff.

• 5-7 p.m. June 18, The Blue Lion at UAFS Downtown, 101 N. Second St., Fort Smith.

While the governor's council delved into data-security issues last week, the governing board for the PARCC exams took a series of votes that had the effect of restructuring the administration of the tests and shortening the time allotted for testing.

This school year, the PARCC exam was divided into two parts: the performance-based assessments in math and literacy that were given during a March testing window and the end-of-year assessments given in May. The first part of the test includes written responses and long-response math problems, all of which must be graded by hand. The second part of the test has more short-answer questions and can be graded quickly by machine.

In the 2015-16 school year, there will be one four-week testing window in the spring, the official dates for which have not yet been selected.

"Essentially, we took the performance-based assessment and the end-of-year, and morphed them together," Hope Allen, testing coordinator for the Arkansas Education Department, said about the restructured exams. "We didn't lose any of the validity of the tests or coverage of the standards. We are keeping the depth of the tests, but we were able to reduce it into one testing window."

The amount of time earmarked for the tests, which varied by grade level and ranged from almost 9.75 hours to more than 11.1 hours this year, will be reduced by about 90 minutes per grade level, according to the PARCC website. High school testing will be 9.7 hours compared with 11.1 hours this school year.

Besides Arkansas, the states that used the PARCC tests this school year were Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, Louisiana and Mississippi, along with the District of Columbia, archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Metro on 05/26/2015

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