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Testing selection draws criticism from lawmakers

Utah education officials say they're following legislative requirements

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 11 2012 6:23 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Education officials were put on the defensive Tuesday after their chosen vendor for statewide adaptive testing drew skepticism from lawmakers, including a question about the competency of the Utah State Office of Education.

Following remarks by members of the community who disagreed with the the state's selection of American Institutes for Research as an assessment provider, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he lacked confidence in the USOE's ability to adequately select a vendor for a new statewide adaptive test.

The key point of disagreement stemmed from the assessment's inability to be compared with student performance in other states, because the test is comprised of items unique to, and developed exclusively for the state of Utah.

But education officials said the unique testing items were part of the requirements required of them in statute by a bill passed during the 2012 legislative session. The provision was a response to conservative opposition to large-scale one-size-fits-all testing materials written outside of the state.

"It's a catch-22," said Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for instructional services. "Right now, we've done what we're supposed to do."

Recently, a pilot program was conducted in several districts, in which students took adaptive tests produced by the Northwestern Evaluation Association. Several educators from those districts spoke to the committee about the success of that program — particularly the comparable and trackable data — expressing that Northwestern would be a more appropriate vendor for the state.

Judy Park, associate superintendent, agreed to the merits of the Northwestern assessment, but added that by law the Utah State Office of Education is required to invest in a statewide assessment that would align with the new Utah Core Standards. She said the Northwestern Evaluation Association and other national assessments do not meet the needs of the state as laid out by the Utah Legislature.

"The pilot was successful. It couldn’t have been more successful," Park said. "I think as we move forward, you can have full confidence that the pilots did their job. They showed us what we needed to do moving forward and how we needed to spend our investment dollars."

She also said data generated by the American Institutes for Research assessment would ultimately be an equally effective education tool as the Northwestern assessment, but time was required to implement and develop the new test.

"You’re looking at an assessment that is established, that is developed, trying to compare it to an assessment that still needs to be developed," Park said. "What AIR will do is exactly all of the things that they have described here today, because we’ve learned from these pilots and those are the things we put in the (request for proposals)."

Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, acknowledged the mixed messages the USOE had received from lawmakers, but also expressed some concern in the points raised by the American Institutes for Research opponents.

"One thing I really dislike is giving an assignment to a group or an individual and then second guessing what the group did," she said. "But it does concern me when we have members of our education community coming in feeling like where we’re heading is not going to give us what we already had."

Deputy State Superintendent Martell Menlove expressed his confidence in the selection process. He said his office, as well as the State Board of Education, had worked to implement the state's requirements for a new adaptive assessment with fidelity.

"Just because we have come to a conclusion that may be different than the conclusion come to by other people does not pollute the process, nor does it indicate that something has gone astray here," Menlove said.

Responding to Stephenson's comments, Hales expressed confidence in the Utah State Office of Education's ability to address concerns in future conversations with lawmakers.

"I'm hopeful that (Stephenson) just doesn't understand what was done and needs to look closer at what the requirements were," she said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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