BESE leaders offer new Common Core test plan

Move comes one day before meeting with Jindal

On the eve of a key meeting over Common Core, three leaders of Louisiana’s top school board said Wednesday they would conditionally go along with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s request for the state to come up with new tests for the upcoming school year.

“As time is running short, we ask that you take this as a final proposal, made in good faith,” the trio said in a letter to Jindal.

The message was signed by Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education; Jim Garvey, vice president of BESE; and Holly Boffy, the group’s secretary.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols told reporters that the latest plan could pave the way for progress. But Nichols also insisted that a wide range of officials, not just education leaders, would have to work together to get a new test contract, which raised a major new sticking point in the battle over Common Core.

The latest round of proposals and counterproposals came one day before Jindal, Roemer, state Superintendent of Education John White and others are set to meet privately to try to strike a compromise on the volatile topic.

The unusual gathering is set for Thursday at 4:40 p.m.

White is supposed to provide the 11-member BESE board with an update on Friday.

The proposal unveiled on Wednesday represents a key change from what the same three BESE members offered last week.

At that time, they offered a plan under which the state would use a combination of controversial Common Core questions being crafted by a consortium — known as PARCC — plus LEAP and other questions long used by state officials.

The Jindal administration rejected that proposal.

Under the newest idea, Roemer and others said, the state Department of Education would immediately issue a request for proposals for new tests for the 2014-15 school, which starts in early August.

“In doing this, we request assurances that the entire process, from issuing the request for proposal through approving a contract, be approved not later than 90 days from the date such a request is issued, so that teachers and families have clarity as soon as possible as to the state’s direction,” according to the letter.

Common Core represents new standards in reading, writing and math.

Much of the push for the overhaul is to allow state-to-state comparisons on student achievement.

The three BESE members said vendors would have to offer exams that measure “nationally recognized content standards” and that the math and English questions would have to be identical to those offered to at least 4 million students in other states.

However, Nichols said a new request for proposals to come up with tests would require input not only from officials of the Department of Education but also from attorneys for the state House and Senate, Division of Administration and Attorney General’s Office.

She said similar teams are often used on large state contracts.

Roemer countered that the team would have authority over education testing policy, not just technical contract issues. “That is not acceptable,” he said.

Jindal wants the state out of Common Core and the tests that go with it.

Those exams are being developed by a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

White and BESE favor Common Core and the PARCC test plans, which have been in the works since 2010.

Jindal said White’s agency failed to follow state procurement laws in settling for the PARCC exams, which White disputes.

In another development Wednesday, Jindal’s Division of Administration accused White’s agency of repeatedly failing to follow state procurement laws on six test contracts that go back to 2003 and cover four superintendents.

“If you game the system, first of all, it is not good faith, and second of all, it is not consistent with the intent of the law,” said Liz Murrill, executive counsel for Nichols.

Nichols said concerns about the contracts are another reason the state needs a varied team to come up with proposals for new exams.

“It is in the agency’s best interests to put the time in on the front end so that they stay out of trouble on the back end,” she said.

The letter from Roemer, Garvey and Boffy, without mentioning Nichols’ proposal, said they are concerned about turning over test content to “purchasing bureaucrats. We fear that a convoluted procurement process will serve as a politically charged back room for decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of children.”

While Jindal wants Common Core out of Louisiana, many educators expect the standards to remain in place for the upcoming school year.

The tests in dispute apply to students in grades three through eight.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.