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Louisiana Schools Stare Into Common-Core Testing Abyss as Officials Clash

louisiana-common-core-500px.jpgA July 17 discussion between Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Superintendent John White failed to break a political and policy disagreement between Jindal and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that has grown and festered around the state's assessment plans for the 2014-15 school year.

Last week, state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell gave the state board the green light to hire an outside attorney to sue Jindal's office over the governor's move to block the state's contract for tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, the Times-Picayune reported July 17. That followed a vote by the state board July 1 to pursue outside counsel. However, Jindal himself also needs to approve this request, which puts the state board in a remarkably tricky position of having to ask the governor for permission to sue him.

These moves constitute the latest chapter in an escalating brawl featuring White and the majority of the state school board versus Jindal over tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, that began roughly a month ago. (Jindal also indicated that he wanted the state to drop the common core, but he's turned his focus away from that idea.)

'We Are Not in a Better Place'

Jindal has blocked the state's contract with Data Recognition Corporation that White and the board planned to use to administer PARCC, saying that the contract does not allow it. The majority of the board, along with White, say Jindal is overstepping his constitutional authority by trying to determine education policy and the content of tests through procurement policy.

In a terse, two-sentence statement released after his July 17 meeting with White, the Republican governor repeated his recent argument that the state education department has not been following the state's laws governing contracts: "I made it clear to Superintendent White that it is important for the Louisiana Department of Education to follow the law. Procurement law is designed to protect taxpayers, and it must be followed."

The previous day, Jindal's office had released a list of problems that it found with the 2011 contract that the state board planned to use to administer PARCC, including language in the contract that, Jindal's office said, makes it clear that "the scope of services is related to the current assessment program and that the amendment ... does not identify any other service or supply to be provided or procured."

Jindal also instructed White to continue discussions with Kristy Nichols, the commissioner of the state's District of Administration in Jindal's office, to try to reach an acceptable deal to both parties.

But in his own conference call with reporters after meeting with the governor, White said that he was "not hopeful" that the current course of the debate would be productive. Jindal's decision to continue blocking the contract, he noted, would impact many other tests not related to the common core, and would plunge teachers, schools, students, and parents into more damaging uncertainty.

"We are not in a better place from a policy perspective than we were two weeks ago," White said, adding that the primary question is, "Who gets to determine what's on the test?"

He did say that he would continue trying to come up with plans to avoid having the fight become a court battle, despite the approval from Caldwell for the board to hire counsel for that purpose.

"We have to have a test," White said, noting that the state's A-F school accountability, charter schools, and millions of dollars in federal funding are tied to the test.

Two Proposals, Two Failures

The most recent compromise offered by the state school board, sent by three board members (including President Chas Roemer) to Jindal on July 16, did not mention PARCC at all. However, the compromise plan, which is supported by White and would allow the state to put a new testing contract out to bid as Jindal wishes, does include this requirement: "Questions in English and math shall be identical to questions administered to at least four million American public school children annually in multiple states, so that Louisianans can receive a full report on our state's competitiveness nationally."

That's an all-but-explicit requirement to use PARCC, or Smarter Balanced, the other common-core-aligned test funded by the federal government.

Why? For the 2014-15 school year there's no relevant test (or set of test questions) that will be administered to four million public school students other than the tests from PARCC or Smarter Balanced. For example, the common-core- aligned test from ACT, Aspire, which is being administered statewide in Alabama and in districts in other states, has only been given to 1.1 million students. 

Now, in subsequent school years, perhaps a common-core-aligned test from Pearson, the American Institutes for Research, or another organization would be given to enough students to fit the requirement Roemer and his two colleagues specified in their July 16 proposal. But that's not the case for the upcoming school year.

So essentially, the state board will put out an RFP as the governor desires, but won't let the governor dictate what's in the RFP. The July 16 plan, and the subsequent discussion between Jindal and White on July 17, show that no side is willing to say uncle. In any event, Jindal appeared unwilling to take this deal.

There was a separate proposal on July 10 from the same members of the state board, which White also supported. In that deal, Louisiana could have used a hybrid test containing an unspecified share of questions from PARCC along with non-PARCC questions. But Jindal shot down that offer later the same day. The state board did not vote on either the July 10 or July 16 proposals, but the majority of the board appeared to support both proposals. 

Photo: Members of Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration look over notes before speaking to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on July 1, in Baton Rouge, La. From left to right, they are: Jindal's policy director Stafford Palmieri, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, and Jindal's executive counsel Thomas Enright.—Melinda Deslatte/AP

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