Maryland takes on new Common Core role as ‘favor’ to Obama, Gov. O’Malley says

President Obama campaigns for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley at Bowie State University in 2010. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
President Obama campaigns for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley at Bowie State University in 2010. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

How’s this for messy? Top Maryland officials approved a contract making the state the “fiscal agent”  for one of two multi-state consortia developing  standardized tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards despite objections that the contract has no minority business participation and concerns about testing obsession. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) acknowledged the lack of minority representation, saying the state feels “kind of saddled” by the contract in this regard because it was inheriting it from Florida, and he told officials to fix the problem. He also said Maryland was doing President Obama “a favor” by taking on the contract.

Maryland’s three-member Board of Public Works approved a contract on Wednesday that gives it fiscal responsibilities for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of two multi-state consortia that — with some $350 million in federal funds — promised to develop standardized tests aligned with the Core. The Core standards were adopted by 46 states plus the District of Columbia in recent years, though a number of states are reconsidering their participation as opposition has grown. It was first reported by MarylandReporter.com.

Florida was the original fiscal agent for PARCC, but it dropped out of the consortium amid growing opposition to the Core in that state and a new fiscal agent is needed by Jan. 1. O’Malley, who chairs the board, said at the meeting that Education Secretary Arne Duncan had asked Maryland to take over the role. He said that Maryland was “picking up the ball after Florida dropped it.” And he said,

We are doing the president a favor here. Glad to do that.

Arnold Jolivet, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, had urged the board — which is comprised of O’Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — to reject the contract because there is “not one dime for the minority business community” and said it was therefore “tinged with racial discrimination and exclusionary practices.”

O’Malley acknowledged the problem, saying, “We feel kind of saddled here by this contract.” He was referring to the fact that as fiscal agent, the state serves as a funnel for federal money to the companies designing the test and to PARCC, a nonprofit organization. Florida already dispersed nearly $90 million under procurement rules it set up. O’Malley noted, however, that there are millions of contract dollars that could still go to minority businesses and he told officials at the meeting that they should find a way to get minority business involvement in the initiative.

Comptroller Peter Franchot voted against the contract (O’Malley and Kopp voted in favor), expressing several concerns. He said that in Maryland there is a concern that

…the state has an obsession with testing rather than teaching. We’re all for accountability, everyone. But to the point it becomes kind of an exotic fetish where we’re all consumed with this test and the curriculum for the test and everyone’s evaluated on the test, aren’t we losing…”

and

It appears they’re going to have a lot of power over the education our kids receive in Maryland schools and the test will wield considerable influence over their futures as well as our teachers and the schools in which they work.

He also voiced strong concern — echoing that of educators and legislators — about the speed at which the state is implementing new school reforms. Resistance is growing to what is being called a “tsunami of school reform” that is washing over Maryland: the simultaneous implementation of a new teacher evaluation system linked in part to standardized test scores, the Common Core State Standards and new tests that are being designed to align with the Core.

State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery is being challenged by legislators and educators about whether she is pushing too much too quickly in terms of school reform.  Education leaders around the state have been calling for Lowery to agree to a moratorium on the Maryland School Assessment test  — which is given annually to students in grades 3 through 8 — until Maryland starts using the new exams aligned to the Common Core, which is now being implemented in classrooms.  The old exam isn’t aligned with the Core, making the results of the exams irrelevant. She has said she is doing what is necessary to comply with federal law and to improve Maryland schools.

Another area of concern expressed by O’Malley at the meeting was about the technology challenge of implementing new Common Core-aligned tests, which are being designed to be given on computers. Lowery told him that the technology would not represent a serious problem. The challenge, she said, is about “the testing, not the IT.”

The Maryland State Education Association released a video parodying the school reform implementation called “Candy Cane Blues.” Here it is:

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | December 18, 2013