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Ed Dept.: Test Consortia Can Have Fewer Than 15 States

The two groups of states that are designing tests for the common standards can drop below 15 member states without jeopardizing their federal funding, a U.S. Department of Education official said.

Our conversation with the official, who requested not to be named, clarified a key rule that has hovered over the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment groups.

The 15-state requirement was an eligibility requirement in 2010 when groups were applying for Race to the Top funding. But now that they are three years into the work, "it wouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker" if either group's membership fell below 15, the official said. "It is more of a dotted line."

The official doesn't think either PARCC or Smarter Balanced would fall below—or much below—15 members.

If either consortium's membership did reach a low enough point, though, the department would begin to question whether its investment was having the intended impact and reach, the official said, adding that loss of a particularly populous state in a consortium could produce the same effect.

"The idea was to use the money to develop a large-scale assessment system for a large group of states," the official said. "Dropping to 14 is no big deal, but much beyond that, there starts to be a question about whether they're doing what they were funded to do: develop a large-scale assessment for a large number of states."

The official acknowledged that it's more art than science for the department to judge when a consortium might have crossed that line. If it does happen, though, it would likely be so close to the end of the grant period—which ends at the end of September 2014—that there wouldn't be much unused federal grant money left to lose.

Consortium membership is a hot topic right now, since both groups are intensely planning for their future survival after their $360 million grants runs out. PARCC has reorganized as a nonprofit, and Smarter Balanced has affiliated with a Los Angeles test-research group. Through those entities, they hope to secure new lines of funding that will help them stay afloat to perform the myriad functions states will need to keep their tests afloat, like updating the computer-based test platforms and refreshing their test-item banks.

Even if a drop below 15 states is unlikely to jeopardize their federal grant money, the consortia have a keen interest in keeping membership rolls as high as possible to facilitate economies of scale. Recent consortium withdrawals, like Georgia's exit from PARCC, and decisions not to use consortia tests, like those in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, have raised questions about how consortium membership will shake out. Stay tuned as we track this.

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