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Florida Contemplates 'Backup' Tests for Common Core

One of the most visible cheerleaders for the common standards and assessments says that his state needs a contingency plan in case the tests are not ready.

At his first meeting with the state board of education since becoming commissioner of education in Florida, Tony Bennett told panelists that he will develop a plan for a statewide testing system for 2014-15 in case the common assessments being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, aren't ready as promised.

"That is a risk, which is why I believe it's always good management to have a Plan B," Bennett said, according to The Miami Herald.

The "complexities" within PARCC that might delay the test, Bennett said, include the cost of testing, figuring out a common scoring system, agreeing on a common cut score, and determining whether schools have sufficient technology to handle the computer-based tests.

Reading that account of the meeting, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bennett might be wondering whether PARCC—in which he has been a vocal participant and advocate, as schools chief in Indiana and now in Florida—can get the job done. But if you read an account of the meeting by State Impact, there's another tidbit in the mix. That report says he is working on a Plan B "in case Florida schools or the new tests" aren't ready (italics are mine).

Another State Impact report, this time focusing on conversation about the assessments in the state legislature, says that Bennett could get a four-month delay so he can survey school districts about their readiness for the common assessments. One idea being considered is to put off implementing the test in upper grades, according to State Impact.

So is it the schools that Bennett worries might not be ready? Or the PARCC tests? Or both?

Given the various threads of doubt that seem to be flowing through Bennett's thinking about the common assessments, I decided to pick up the phone and ask him to elaborate a bit.

In his characteristically brisk way, Bennett told me that his "Plan B" in Florida is no different than similar contingency plans he developed when he was chief of schools in Indiana. In such a complex project as test development by 20-plus states, he said, it is simply prudent management to have a backup plan in place.

"It's in no way an indication of any deep fear that PARCC is going to fail," Bennett told me. "No one wants this to succeed more than I do, and no one believes it ultimately will succeed more than I do. But I would be remiss in my duties as state commissioner ... if I don't have a Plan B for that."

Because of the complexities inherent in working in big, multistate consortia, Bennett said, the only way to be a smart manager is to have an "equal fallback position" in the event that PARCC tests are delayed or "for some unthinkable reason PARCC doesn't deliver."

There is a question of school readiness, too, though. The four-month delay, Bennett explained, came up when state lawmakers asked if he would find it helpful to have "flexibility" in the timeline of standards and assessment implementation. Chatting with me, Bennett was noncommittal about any delay. First, he said, he wants to survey districts to see how far they are from having the technology to implement the tests, and get a better sense of how well teachers have been prepared to teach the new standards, he said.

"There is a great deal of evidence that we have done a lot to roll out an implementation plan for the standards," Bennett said of the Sunshine State. "It's important to me to go out and check with the field and make sure it's received and implemented it. You just want to make sure that what we say we are delivering is getting delivered to the local districts."

In lieu of any need to change directions, Bennett said, he is proceeding on the presumption that he will be identifying gaps to fill—in technology or training—rather than slowing down implementation.

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