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Monday, March 21, 2011

Tests to cost tens of millions

From the St. Augustine Record

by Lilly Rockwell

TALLAHASSEE -- As Florida prepares to establish a new system of paying public school teachers that is based heavily on test scores, many lawmakers are casting a skeptical eye on the potential boon the reform could bring to educational testing companies.

The Legislature sent a proposal that connects teacher pay to test scores to the governor for approval Wednesday. The measure (SB 736) requires new tests be developed for nearly every course by July 2014.

"This bill will be a bonanza for the private companies that make their money grading tests but will do nothing for teachers or our children's education," said Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami, during floor debate Wednesday.

While test companies could receive millions from the proposals under the merit pay bill and the requirements of Florida's $700 million Race to the Top federal grant, it also shifts more test development to the district level, bypassing private companies.

The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he was surprised by accusations that testing companies will benefit from the bill, calling it a "conspiracy theory."

"The tests are going to be developed at the local level," Fresen said. "They are going to be developed organically and simply approved by (the Department of Education)."

Florida's FCAT and other end-of course exams are currently developed by a private company, Pearson, and the Department of Education, said Kris Ellington, a deputy commissioner at the department.

Fresen noted that the state is moving away from such tests and said "Pearson hates the fact that we are moving away from the FCAT."

The test is required for high school students to graduate and is also used to grade schools.

Pearson lobbyist Steve Uhlfelder declined to comment for this story.

Pearson helps facilitate meetings with committees of teachers from across the state that review and modify test questions that Pearson has developed, Ellington said.

The cost to develop a test ranges from $1 million to $1. 5 million just for one year's work, Ellington said, and it can take up to three years to develop and print a test. Pearson also does test scoring for the Department of Education.

Already, Pearson and the Department of Education are working to develop new end-of-course exams for classes such as algebra, geometry and biology.

Through SB 736 and Race to the Top, school districts are required to test every subject, from core classes like chemistry to electives like art, band and physical education.

The closest thing to a "boon" for testing companies is the proposed development of a test bank.

Through the Race to the Top grant, Florida plans to use $41 million to develop a "test bank" of questions in different subjects. A private company will be contracted for that, but no decision has been made as to what company will be hired to for the job, Ellington said.

The plan is for school districts to access the bank to develop their own tests. Ellington said the school districts would pay printing costs, though the tests could be taken electronically.

In addition, school districts will work in groups to develop a way to test difficult-to-measure subjects like art or choir, using $21 million in Race to the Top funds, Ellington said.

These tests will be developed entirely without any outside involvement from a private company.

Critics of merit pay still maintain that the measure shifts more of the cost of test development to school districts. Federal grants are available for test development now, but it's unclear how future test development will be funded.

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