The tests that bind: Questions emerge as Thrasher faces allegations of ties to testing industry

By Julie Delegul

Follow the money trail, my experienced journalist-friends tell me, and you will find the answers. But as possible links have emerged this week between Senate District 8 incumbent John Thrasher, his former lobbying clients, and the company hired to do Florida’s FCAT and new end-of-course testing, I’m finding more questions than answers.

How did NCS Pearson, with its history of bungling tests, get the FCAT contract in Florida in the first place?

Why did Florida switch to Pearson from its previous FCAT test vendor?
Is FCAT even a reliable testing tool? And wasn’t Duval County already administering its own end-of-course exams?

Deborah Gianoulis’ campaign charged John Thrasher with lying about his lobbying connection to the testing industry on Wednesday. (See Tia Mitchel’s story in 10/27 Times Union) Apparently, Thrasher listed the Educational Testing Service (ETS) as one of his lobbying clients in the official 2009 legislative registry, prior to running for and winning the office held by the late Senator Jim King late last year.

But in a Times Union article that appeared in April of this year, just after Thrasher’s teacher tenure-busting Senate Bill 6 was vetoed by Governor Charlie Crist, Thrasher told TU reporter Matt Dixon: “I never had any connection to [the testing companies].”

To understand the weight of the allegation, keep in mind that the company in charge of executing the $254 million FCAT testing contract for Florida, NCS Pearson, did $143 million in subcontract work for ETS from 2006 through 2008. ETS, in turn, was a client of Thrasher’s former lobbying company, Southern Strategy, which is why it was listed among dozens of his “principals,” i.e., lobbying clients, in the legislative registry.

Even if Thrasher never personally represented ETS, as he contends, his lobbying friends from Southern Strategy certainly did. And arguably, beginning with the 2009 session, Southern Strategy had their ringer—Thrasher—in the state senate. Lobbyists from Southern Strategy contributed $7,000 to Thrasher’s 2009 campaign, according to the press release from the Gianoulis campaign.

Advocates will remember that NCS Pearson was fined $14.7 million so far this year for tardy FCAT scores. The fines are still being tabulated as local districts continue to tally the damages they incurred from cramming promotional, placement and graduation decisions for the current school year into a shorter time frame.

The Miami Herald reported this summer that Pearson was hired by the state to run the FCAT despite serious problems the company had in the past with scoring tests for the College Board (an ETS division) as well as other standardized tests in various states. And now NCS Pearson also holds the contract in Florida for developing and administering the new End of Course (EOC) exams for high school and middle school courses. Florida voters should be concerned.

Legislation passed just this year requires that students pass an Algebra I end of course exam (EOC) in order to graduate. Those of us who rallied, called, and emailed against Senate Bill 6 will remember that EOC exams were one controversial part of that bill. Several local school boards argued that the cost of developing more tests would amount to an unfunded mandate for them.

But links between Thrasher and the testing industry might explain why he was so bound and determined to push the EOC bills through the legislature, un-tweaked. Might it be that the senator was less concerned with perceptions of unfunded mandates than with making sure there was law on the books to support an already funded testing contract for EOCs? Could the EOC piece have been included in the NCS Pearson contract even before the legislature mandated the tests?

This EOC development business should raise red flags among taxpayers, and here’s why: Duval County, unlike most counties, has been way ahead of the curve in developing, field testing and validating end of course exams, according to Chief Academic Officer Kathryn Leroy. She says that Duval has already developed dozens of middle and high school tests, at a cost of approximately $12,000 per exam. And while the county has administered its own EOC exams over the past four years, it will yield to using the state sanctioned test—Pearson’s Algebra I test—this year. So what happens to the time, talent and treasure Duval spent on EOCs? Doesn’t the new Pearson EOC contract duplicate hundreds of thousands of dollars of work already completed in Duval? When Folio posed these questions to the district, Leroy answered only that Duval’s tests would continue to be used as early assessments and mid-year benchmarks.

But there’s more that concerns me—not just as a civic journalist who’s been tracking education issues, but as a parent. When the state of Florida switched to NCS Pearson as FCAT vendor this year, public school students lost the “NRT” or norm-referenced test that had been administered to them along with the FCAT until 2008.

The “NRT” is based on the Stanford 10 (a test administered at many private schools) and assigns a percentile ranking for students rather than determining grade level proficiency, as the FCAT does.

As Folio reported on September 28, Duval students who barely passed the state’s FCAT reading subtest for 10th grade, also scored a median 87th percentile ranking for reading on the NRT; that score indicates a higher reading level than 87% of the nation’s 10th graders. That could mean that students who don’t make the cutoff score—students who fail the FCAT and fail to graduate—may also score, on other objective tests, as very good readers.

In that sense, Florida may be manufacturing failure.

The test-industry tie to Thrasher that the Gianoulis campaign alleges may be only a single thread in a much more insidious political tapestry. Specifically, as the centerpiece of Jeb Bush’s education legacy—the FCAT—gets thrown into question, lawmakers may have simply moved to get rid of the things that raise those pesky questions, like the NRT. As an added bonus, removing the NRT as an element from the FCAT testing package would make for a less expensive contract. So switching from the state’s previous FCAT vendor, which had included the NRT piece, to NCS-Pearson-sans-NRT, is going to appear to be a cost-saver. Kind of like french-fries are cheaper at McDonald’s than the whole Big-Mac combo meal.

But it leaves concerned parents asking, “Where’s the beef?” Can we trust that the FCAT or its descendant, FCAT 2.0, reliably does the job, when there’s no GCAT in Georgia or HCAT in Hawaii, to provide any context?

Parents have lost confidence in the FCAT, according to one St. Petersburg Times poll. Fifty-two percent of parents there said they didn’t believe the FCAT is a reliable test of student or school performance. Questions about how the NCS Pearson bidding decision was made, and the ins and outs of the 5-year FCAT testing contract with Pearson, far outweigh, in my mind, the Thrasher-ETS-Pearson connection alleged by the Gianoulis campaign. Although it might prove to be the ragged end of thread woven into the whole lucrative enterprise.

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