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  1. Education

Florida Education Department gives nonprofit $220 million contract to replace the FCAT

Commissioner Pam Stewart says tests will be ready for 2014-15.
Published Mar. 18, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — After months of uncertainty, the state Education Department has selected an exam to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.

The American Institutes for Research is the winner of the coveted $220 million, six-year contract to develop and administer the new statewide exams, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced Monday.

The Washington-based nonprofit beat out testing giants Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill.

The as-yet-unnamed exams will be aligned to the Florida Standards, the new education benchmarks based on the controversial Common Core State Standards.

"I am confident that this is the best choice for Florida's students," Stewart said. "This assessment will measure their progress and achievement on Florida Standards, which, along with high quality instruction, will give every student the opportunity to be college and career ready."

The assessments, like the standards, will emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills.

"Students will be asked to create graphs, interact with test content and write and respond in different ways than on traditional tests," according to the state Department of Education website. "New question types will assess students' higher-order thinking skills in keeping with the higher expectations of the Florida Standards."

Expect some other changes, including the addition of an 11th-grade language arts exam and an algebra 2 exam.

Students in certain grade levels may end up spending more time testing than they used to on the FCATs, Stewart said. But the new tests will likely be given later in the school year than the FCATs were.

They will be given both on paper and online, with the goal to gradually phase out pencil-and-paper assessments.

Stewart said the tests will be ready for the 2014-15 school year.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho raised concerns that the tests would not be fully vetted by then. He noted that sample items will be tested in Utah.

The Utah-based field-testing troubled Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning. "I will assure you our (population of English-as-a-second language students) is much higher than Utah's," he said.

AIR may not be as well-known as the large testing companies that lost out, but the nonprofit has experience in Florida. The group helped develop the complex new formula used to evaluate teachers.

Outside of Florida, the nonprofit holds testing contracts in nine states: Delaware, Hawaii, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah. It is also working with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two multistate organizations developing tests to accompany the Common Core standards.

Florida was originally going to use the tests being created by the other multistate consortium: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. But after concerns about federal overreach surfaced last year, Gov. Rick Scott called for other options.

Five groups submitted proposals in hopes of winning a contract: ACT, AIR, CTB/McGraw-Hill, McCann Associates and Pearson.

PARCC officials said funding issues prevented the consortium from participating in the competitive bidding process. PARCC did, however, ask to be considered anyway.

Last month, a five-member team tasked with recommending a vendor put its unanimous support behind AIR. The team liked the fact that AIR's tests did not need widespread field testing and could be given later in the school year. FCAT critics say the exams take place too early in the year, discouraging the teaching of new material once testing is over.

Stewart made the final decision. She pointed out on Monday that the AIR exams were less expensive than the PARCC exams, and what the state currently pays for comparable tests.

AIR vice president Jon Cohen said he was looking forward to working in Florida.

"Florida has been a leader in education reform and accountability," he said. "Assessment has been a big part of that. We are really thrilled to have an opportunity to be a part of this."

Others are skeptical.

"After what happened with the VAM (value-added model), I'm just not comfortable with AIR," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association.

Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia raised another issue: having Florida-specific tests will make it difficult to compare students in Florida to students elsewhere.

"It certainly moves us," Elia said of Monday's decision. "But I don't think it's close enough to where we want or need to be."

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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