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More Guideposts for 'Race to the Top' Assessment Contest

A funny thing happened today at the U.S. Department of Education's expert hearing on how state procurement rules can affect the process of designing common assessments.

It got interesting.

I freely confess that I went in wondering if I would lapse into semi-consciousness, lost in the tall weeds of conversation about obscure regulations and technicalities. And there were a few weeds ("third-party aggregator," anyone?).

But the experts convened by the Education Department raised a long list of surprisingly fascinating questions. And that list offers a window into the dilemmas the department faces as it prepares to launch the $350 million competition for consortia of states to design common tests pegged to common academic standards. (I've blogged about it here and here, and those posts include links to the pertinent stories we've written as well. Come on, catch up. It'll be fun.)

The morning's testimony featured advice from three veterans of complex, multiparty procurement consortia: Douglas Richins, who headed up procurement for the state of Utah before founding the Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA); Mark D. Colley, who chairs the government-contracts group for the law firm Arnold & Porter and who also helped Achieve navigate the legal waters for the math tests developed by its assessment consortium; and Allan V. Burman, who helped shape federal procurement policy under three presidents before taking the helm of the consulting group Jefferson Solutions.

They discussed how multistate consortia would have to organize themselves to avoid running afoul of any one state's procurement rules. (Some states, for instance, permit the use of a "best value" approach in a proposal, in which factors other than cost can be considered, and some states would not be permitted to do so.) They talked about the importance of consortia partners getting schooled on the legal and technical obstacles to developing common tests, so no surprises crop up late in the game (something like, "What do you mean that State A's rule 4456(g) prohibits this?").

The hearing got particularly interesting when an expert in educational technology—but not procurement—waded in with a few opinions. Larry Berger, the CEO and co-founder of Wireless Generation (and, in full disclosure, a board member of EdWeek's parent nonprofit, Editorial Projects in Education), said he saw a "vast disconnect" between traditional procurement processes—even cooperative ones—and the type of innovation sought by the assessment competition.

Having states issue proposals for test design in the typical way—"here's what we want you to do, now tell us how you might do it"—will narrow the field of ideas because it limits valuable 360-degree input early in the process, he said.

In his experience designing tech-driven assessments and curriculum, Berger said, the greatest breakthroughs are made when all the most creative minds are included in round-the-table discussions about an idea right upfront. That would mean gathering designers, lawyers, state procurement experts, vendors, tech folks, and others together—even those with potentially competing ideas and products—and operating by what he calls the "50-hour rule": brewing up truly innovative solutions through that amount of time in creative furor. Instead of the traditional Request for Proposals or Request for Information, why not issue a "request for collaboration," Berger said, that would be a sort of "design bake-off?"

That led to an interesting discussion about whether states, by inviting multiple vendors' input upfront, would actually disqualify those vendors from bidding on the work because of a conflict of interest. Experts also questioned whether competing designers would want to collaborate around a table that way, since they are inclined to protect the market value of their ideas.

Race to the Top director Joanne Weiss certainly seemed interested in all the ideas. Which ones will ultimately shape the application remains to be seen.

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