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Ed Testing Company AIR Has Ties To Common Core, Smarter Balanced Consortium

Earlier this week an education committee recommended a new company to design exams replacing the state’s outgoing Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. But the company has close ties to the Common Core standards from which the state is trying to distance itself from.

Florida’s English and math FCAT tests were supposed to be replaced with ones aligned with Common Core standards. But pushback from critics has led officials to back away from those standards and from the PARCC testing consortium—a group of more than 20 states that had agreed to share the exams. 

The Florida Department of Education allowed testing companies to bid on developing new exams, and earlier this week a committee recommended the American Institutes for Research to be Florida’s new testing company. AIR has helped build and implement state exams for Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Oregon, to name a few. And while the company’s head of testing, John Cohen, declined to talk specifically about the company’s bid for a Florida contract, he did talk about how Oregon’s tests are administered:

“In fact, the state testing director from Oregon is now the Chief Operating Officer of Smarter Balanced," he said.

Smarter Balanced is the other Common Core-aligned testing consortium. Cohen says the Oregon model uses computers to administer exams—and AIR tests can run on both new and old machines -- everything from old PC’s to new iPads.

“The Oregon model accounts for the whole computer-delivery adaptive aspects,” he says.

Part of Florida’s requirement for a new testing administrator is that the company be able to handle both computer-based and paper tests. Cohen says his company plays a big role when it comes to the delivery of the Smarter Balanced exams.

“Our role there is to help with aspects of test design, but also to deliver the test online and deliver to them an open-source system so others can deliver the test online," he says.

The Miami Herald first reported the committee’s decision. In that story, some education officials claimed AIR’s exams won’t have to be field-tested. AIR recently piloted Smarter Balanced exams with some 700,000 students, and next month, up to 5 million students in that consortium will take a Smarter Balanced field test.

To critics of the national Common Core standards, the situation doesn’t sit well.

“I am not at all comfortable, I am not at all trusting," said Florida Parents Against Common Core co-founder Meredith Mears. "I haven’t been trusting of the system for a very long time, as you can imagine. For them to do this is deceiving, it’s deceitful, and it’s not going to do any good for our children.” 

Mears likens what the state is doing with the tests to what it did with the standards themselves—make some small changes, give the program a new name and then what the state has invested millions in doesn’t have to be scrapped altogether.

“The whole bait and switch thing, you can slap a different name on it, just like the standards, and it doesn’t make it any different. It’s still the same thing," she said.

Still, there are only a handful of companies that develop standardized exams like the ones Florida needs. For example, AIR was a subcontractor for CBT/McGraw Hill when that company made test items for Smarter Balanced. McGraw Hill was among those four companies, along with textbook company Pearson, that made unsuccessful bids for the Florida contract.

Florida Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick says his department won’t discuss AIR’s bid for the contract until after state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart makes a final decision next month.

Any new exams wouldn’t go into effect until next school year.

For more news updates, follow Lynn Hatter on twitter @HatterLynn

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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