JACKSON — When it comes to companies to provide future standardized tests in Mississippi, the ACT organization says it’s out. But it’s not yet clear who’s in.
Monday was the deadline for companies to submit proposals to the Mississippi Department of Education, which could as early as April choose the test that will be used starting in the 2015-2016 school year. The department said late Monday it was unable to reply to an Associated Press request for a list of bidders until Tuesday at the earliest.
As part of a switch to the Common Core academic standards, Mississippi joined a multistate testing group called the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Testing firm Pearson PLC was hired by New Mexico to develop tests for the consortium, and Mississippi officials sought to adopt the PARCC tests for multiple years last fall. But a Mississippi contract review board said it would reject the contract because officials didn’t consider other vendors. Mississippi then signed only a one-year, no-bid $8.4 million emergency contract with Pearson, adopting the tests for this spring only.
That set up a competition to choose a new vendor. The Mississippi Association of School Superintendents and others pushed the selection of Iowa-based ACT, which makes other tests in addition to the college test of the same name.
Lawmakers unsuccessfully sought earlier this year to mandate use of ACT or ban the test Pearson wrote for PARCC, even after Mississippi left the consortium. Those proposals could still resurface in the 2015 session.
In a March 6 letter, ACT said it wouldn’t be bidding. The letter, from ACT Assistant Vice President Catherine Dunn, objected to Mississippi’s demands that ACT produce a third-party study showing it’s “completely aligned” to the state’s Common Core standards, that Mississippi review and approve test forms and that the state be allowed to include customized questions the state would own.
ACT was willing to develop Mississippi-only questions as an add-on. But it declined to change its core tests because they would lose state-to-state comparability, no longer be aligned with ACT’s own college and career readiness standards, and cost more.
“We strongly believe the national comparability and economic value are important considerations,” Dunn wrote.
ACT’s exit raised alarm from the superintendents’ association, which favors ACT partly because of its college test, which Mississippi is now administering to all public school juniors.
“We want an opportunity for every qualified tester to be able to offer a bid,” said Sam Bounds, the association’s executive director.
Officials with the state Department of Education say they’re not trying to weight the competition in anyone’s favor, although ACT’s concerns have been clear for months.
“We’ve always said it’s been open to anybody,” department spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said Monday.
The Department of Education could face political pushback over ACT’s exit.
ACT and Pearson have hired two of the state’s most prominent lobbying firms, and testing-related language could be added back in to Senate Bill 2161. It creates a commission to recommend changes to Common Core, officially called Mississippi’s College- and Career-Ready Standards. And if major standards changes are adopted, the state could be forced to buy another new test for 2016-2017. That could be the fourth test administered in four years.