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Testing Providers Could Be Forced to Pivot Quickly as Result of Biden’s State Testing Policy

testing providers could be forced to pivot quickly as result of bidens state testing policy
Testing Group IMG
Cropped view of a multiracial group of young men and women sitting in a row at a table, writing with pencils on paper. They are taking a test or filling out an application. Focus is on the hand of the young man in the middle in the gray shirt.

The Biden administration’s recent guidance for how states should carry out federally mandated tests is likely to have implications for the testing industry, potentially affecting everything from the work required to design the exams to scheduling them to companies’ bottom lines.

In a letter to states, the U.S. Department of Education this week informed states that they won’t be allowed to cancel federally mandated standardized exams this school year — unlike last spring, when they were given the right to shelve end-of-year exams.

But the agency gave states the right to propose shortened versions of state exams in English/language arts, math, and science, and is allowing them to delay the assessments, potentially even until next school year.

Typically, test scoring is done over a three-week time period, but a longer testing window increases the chances that the process becomes less efficient, which could raise test providers’ costs, said Barry Topol, managing partner of Assessment Solutions Group. His organization provides assessment cost, management and state accountability systems analysis and consulting to states and other entities.

“The big costs of scoring are the variable costs of monitoring those [test] raters and readers, and training them and having them score,” he said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief.

Though the department’s letter to states said it won’t invite state requests for blanket waivers of assessments akin to the broad waivers issued by the department last spring, the agency did say it will allow states to seek waivers from federal requirements for school accountability, which would include a waiver from the requirement that states test 95 percent of eligible students, as my Education Week colleagues reported Monday.

And despite the department’s decision to not invite applications for broad assessment waivers, states could still seek them.

For instance, Pennsylvania state lawmakers on Wednesday asked the Biden administration to waive assessment requirements this year because of the pandemic.

Reworking State Contracts

If states take advantage of the administration’s permission to delay this year’s assessments, that could increase logistical and hiring costs for assessment providers.

Asked whether longer testing windows would make it more difficult to efficiently hire test scorers for this cycle, Cambium Assessment President Steve Kromer said the scenario is one that the company can adapt to meet. Scorers are generally receptive, he said, to offers to extend their contracts if necessary.

Cambium Assessment currently has 27 different contracts with states for summative types of assessments, and provides mostly computer-based tests, he said.

As there were last year, there could be contract renegotiations between Cambium and its customers as these states explore the possibilities of delaying or modifying aspects of this year’s tests, Kromer said.

“We would need to understand what the impact of a change would be, in terms of how we adjust our capacity based on our anticipated volumes of helpdesk calls and volumes of computer-based tests,” Kromer said. “We’re going to — as any business — look at adjustments to our capacity.”

If assessment providers are administering tests remotely, an extended test window could place additional cost burdens by requiring extensions of leases for test facilities and computers, Topol said.

On the other hand, if states desire shorter assessments, it could challenge companies to quickly compress the length of these exams while still ensuring the tests are still robust, Topol said.

“One way to do it would be to eliminate those constructed response items, but then you’ve got some issues with are you providing adequate content coverage?” he said. “The later in the school year… that you do that, the faster the vendors have to respond, the more expensive it is, and the more you introduce more chances for human error somewhere in the process.”

Cambium Assessment’s revenue took a hit when standardized tests were canceled last year. The company could sustain some revenue impacts this cycle as well, potentially associated with longer testing windows and modifying test structures, Kromer said.

But other costs could fall, Kromer said.

“You may not have to pay the cost to have [physical test books] taken to one of the states and have all those test books delivered and pick them back up,” he said. “There are costs that would go away.”

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Inside the California K-12 Market: District Priorities and Pain Points

inside the california k 12 market district priorities and pain points
Inside California's K-12 Market: A Special Report

California’s school districts have taken a go-it-slow approach to reopening in-person, compared to some other states. It’s just one of the factors shaping the education market in the nation’s most populous state, which is the subject of a penetrating new EdWeek Market Brief special report.

District officials across California are under acute pressure to deliver distance learning that will engage students and satisfy families, given the uncertainty about when schools will return to face-to-face learning in classrooms.

That uncertainty persists despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s urging that schools across the state, which serve 6.3 million students, make the switch to in-person instruction as soon as possible.

Administrators and educators in the state are also trying to navigate students’ social-emotional needs and overall well-being, which educators fear have been shaken by the pandemic.

Those are just some of the themes that EdWeek Market Brief explores in the report, the second in a three-part series on critical education markets for K-12 companies. The first installment focused on Texas, and the report to follow will delve into Florida.

This report, like the others in the series, is based heavily on in-depth interviews EdWeek Market Brief conducted with district officials about their pressing academic and spending priorities and what they want from vendors in the months and years to come.

It includes David Saleh Rauf’s top story guiding readers through district demands. It features an “In Their Own Voices” section in which we allow our readers to hear from California K-12 officials directly about their most urgent challenges. And it offers the results of state-specific surveys of California district officials conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.

The report offers insights from district leaders like Michael Matsuda, superintendent at the 30,000-student Anaheim Union High School District. He speaks to the pressures he and his peers around the state face to not only craft academic strategies to help students during remote learning, but also to find ways to help a “whole generation that is traumatized” by the events that have played out over the last 11 months.

“I know there’s going to be a lot of districts that are focused on just jamming content down students’ throats because they’re behind,” Matsuda told EdWeek Market Brief.

“While there is a need to address learning loss, it’s really about how we build resilience for this entire generation. So a lot of our resources are going to go into social workers and counselors and school psychologists, and a retraining of our teaching staff on dealing with this.”

The report brings revealing insights on key issues affecting the California K-12 market, including:

  • New survey data about where California district officials expect to spend the most or the least over the next year, in areas such as social-emotional learning, curriculum, PD, learning management and student information systems, and parent-communication tools.
  • Perspectives on how state policies – such as the budget, and decisions about remote vs. in-person learning – are going to play out over the next year and affect district priorities.
  • Survey data on which elements of Local Control Accountability Plans – key blueprints laying out California local district priorities – K-12 leaders expect companies seeking to do business with them to pay the most attention to.
  • Insights on the extent to which California districts are going “off-list” and straying from state adoption guidelines in purchasing curriculum.

EdWeek Market Brief’s members can access the full report here.

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Biden Executive Order Could Shed Light on District Needs During COVID

biden executive order could shed light on district needs during covid
Joe Biden signing executive orders

A presidential executive order tasking the U.S. Department of Education to collect data to inform K-12 school reopenings could provide companies across the market with a window into districts’ most urgent needs.

Data on attendance, funding priorities, public and charter school enrollment, teacher vaccination rates, assessment scores, and learning loss were among the areas that education advocates and company officials interviewed by EdWeek Market Brief said they would like to see the department collect when it implements the directives of the Jan. 21 executive order.

Among other things, the executive order instructs the Secretary of Education to coordinate with the department’s director of the Institute of Education Sciences to facilitate collection of “data necessary to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators, including data on the status of in-person learning.”

The order calls for consultation with students, educators, unions, families, and state and local officials.

It would be difficult to glean a nationally representative sample of districts as they address challenges posed by the coronavirus, but the forthcoming data could help vendors improve their offerings to better fit district needs, said Reg Leichty, a founding partner of the education consulting group Foresight Law+Policy.

For example, detailed information on absentee rates and anticipated learning losses in reading, math, and other areas, could help companies better support teachers and students, he said.

“If we’re able to gather data about why students aren’t attending school, and it turns out to be something like broadband connectivity — which we know to be a problem — basically that’s a signal to companies that provide those services” that schools need what they’re offering.

In collecting attendance and assessment data, it will be important to pull in granular information about the student’s learning setting—whether it be virtual or in person—and to correlate those data with that student’s assessment scores, said Angela Jerabek, executive director of the BARR Center, a company that trains school staffs on relationship-building and school-level data collection and contextualization.

If the Biden administration can correlate those two data points, it will help contextualize the factors behind students’ learning progression or regression, she said.

Before IES collects the data, the agency will have to provide federal notice of its intent to survey states for new information.

Once IES provides notice, the federal comment period can take 30-60 days, meaning it could be at least a month after today before the education department starts collecting data.

Spending Needs, Other Than PPE

Kate Topping, vice president of marketing and communications at NWEA, said she would like to see the department collect data on public K-12 enrollment declines as well as charter school enrollment.

One big question is whether the rising interest in charters and private schools during COVID will continue, or whether parents have been sending their kids to these institutions merely because that was the only way to ensure their children would receive in-person instruction, Topping said.

It would also be helpful to know how increased spending on cleaning products for districts, across the board, may have diminished their ability to spend in other areas, she said.

NWEA did its own analysis of district funding priorities, and hand sanitizer, Wi-Fi hot spots, and student devices were all near the top of the list, Topping said.

“Those are the basic needs,” she said, “and then what will they take beyond that?”

In addition to instructional data, data on staff health records such as vaccination rates will be critical to collect, as policymakers weigh the factors necessary to reopen schools, Leichty said.

“Both sets of data are going to be important for administrators and their educators to not only run their schools,” Leichty said, “but also target instruction in a way that…helps support students through this period.”

Photo: President Joe Biden signs an executive order in the state dining room at the White House, one of many he has signed, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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States’ Education Budget Proposals for Next Year Not as Bleak as Many Predicted

states education budget proposals for next year not as bleak as many predicted
FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2021 file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom outlines his 2021-2022 state budget proposal during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif. Newsom sent president-elect Joe Biden a letter on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, outlining shared priorities and areas where the state can work together with the new Democratic administration. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool, File)

Governors in several states are proposing increases in funding for education next year, buoyed by confidence that state revenues will improve from the deep recession caused by the pandemic.

As of this week, governors in 28 states had released budget blueprints for fiscal year 2022, which in states typically begins in July. It is up to state legislatures to approve budgets before they can become law.

Some states enact funding on a per-year basis, while others approve spending for two-year periods.

The funding picture for next fiscal may not be as dire as some had predicted, with several states proposing education funding increases, despite worries about falling tax revenues after deep economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic started being felt sharply in March.

“The additional federal aid to states that’s included in that last coronavirus relief bill will be helpful,” said Brian Sigritz, the director of state fiscal studies for the National Association of State Budget Officers, told EdWeek Market Brief.  That legislation, signed into law last month by former President Donald Trump, provided $54 billion in dedicated aid to K-12 schools.

The money will ease the burden on states “as they start to consider governors’ budget requests for overall and for K-12, specifically,” Sigritz said.

Here are a few highlights of how governors’ spending proposals address education.

California: In the country’s largest K-12 public school system, Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing a one-time $2 billion allocation to “augment” resources for schools to offer in-person instruction safely, according to the proposal.

The money may be used for purchasing personal protective equipment, expanding COVID-19 testing, improving ventilation and safety of indoor and outdoor learning spaces, teacher salaries, and social and mental health services, according to the budget.

In total, the government is proposing $85.8 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges over two years, a $14.9 billion increase and the highest level of funding for schools and community colleges ever in the state.

Newsom’s proposal predicts that increased revenues will come to the state as a result of a less severe economic downturn than anticipated, relatively low income losses among high-wage segments of the population, and a stronger stock market than expected.

Arizona: Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget says the state’s education funding formula will decrease by $389 million, but proposes fully compensating for that using coronavirus relief money.

The state is projecting the decrease largely because of lower-than-expected attendance in the beginning of the school year. The governor’s office is proposing to allocate what will amount to a total of $1.9 billion in stimulus grants toward K-12 public and charter schools

Ducey proposes increasing spending on expanded early literacy, intervention programs, professional development, social-emotional learning, expanding the pipeline of teachers in low-income schools, statewide assessments.

The Republican is also calling for $40 million in additional money to expand broadband in rural communities and help bridge the digital divide.

Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan is proposing $7.5 billion for K-12 schools, about $213 million more than required by state funding formulas.

The state’s funding formula was set to reduce aid for fiscal year 2022 because of declining enrollment. But the governor’s office is holding local jurisdictions harmless for the decline. Specifically, Hogan is proposing $151.6 million for targeted tutoring grants in every local jurisdiction, $65.5 million for special education grants, $54.7 million for the expansion of early childhood initiatives, $53.7 million for pre-K supplemental grants, and $4.5 million for out-of-school programs.

South Carolina: Gov. Henry McMaster is proposing $35.2 million to maintain state aid to K-12 classrooms at the current level, and another $100 million in supplemental funding for instructional materials, as the state looks to replace all Common Core textbooks.

Notably, McMaster is calling the state’s general assembly to fund charter schools through a dedicated, recurring funding source. Such schools are currently funded through annual supplemental appropriations. McMaster has been a strong proponent of charter schools. Other proposed major investment areas include teacher training, placing nurses in schools, computer science and coding instruction, and school mental health counselors.

New York: In one of the nation’s largest K-12 markets, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing an $848.8 million increase in formula-based school aid over its fiscal year 2021 funding amount of $25.9 billion.

But the state is proposing a $393 million reduction in a $3.7 billion aid package that includes funding for state boards of cooperative educational services, which procure educational materials for school districts. For at least next fiscal year, that reduction would be fully offset by federal coronavirus relief funds. The budget highlights afterschool programs, early college high schools, and smart schools innovation as major proposed investments.

State revenue forecasts have somewhat improved since last spring, when many states projected very significant declines at the outset of the pandemic, Sigritz said.

Though improved budget conditions will help states avert severe spending reductions, policymakers may be forced to defer certain costs, such as increasing teacher pay and planning increases in state funding formulas, he said.

“In most instances, states are still projecting less revenue than what they were before the outbreak of COVID-19,” he said. “It’s just that for many states, the revenue declines aren’t as sharp as what they were originally anticipating.”

If state budgets rebound significantly, it would represent a major turnaround from much of last year. Data released last fall by NASBO showed for the first time in roughly a decade — since the last recession —  the majority of states closed their fiscal year 2020 books with a decline in general revenue funds.

Forty-six states begin their fiscal year on July 1, with Alabama and Michigan starting theirs on Oct. 1, Texas starting its fiscal year on Sept. 1, and New York starting its fiscal year on April 1.

Photo: California Gov. Gavin Newsom outlines his 2021-2022 state budget proposal  this month during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif.  (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool, File)

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Virginia District Looking for Textbooks, New Mexico District Seeks Digital Curriculum

virginia district looking for textbooks new mexico district seeks digital curriculum

Universal screener, textbooks for multiple subjects, digital curriculum. Stafford County Schools in Virginia is in the market for new print textbooks and digital materials, while the Atlanta Independent School System seeks a universal screener. Further, the Albuquerque district in New Mexico is looking for digital curriculum.

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Why a Major Education Organization Jumped into the World of Venture Capital

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The assessment and research organization ETS recently launched a venture capital arm. The fund’s managing director, Ralph Taylor-Smith, talks with EdWeek Market Brief about its ambitions.

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Breaking Down the State of K-12 Wi-Fi Capability – and the Gaps That Remain During COVID

breaking down the state of k 12 wi fi capability and the gaps that remain during covid
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EdWeek Market Brief survey research shows that districts have made big gains in internet access over the past few years, but those upgrades have been offset by COVID-era connectivity barriers.

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