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Test scoring has some worried

By John Hildebrand

A recent state Education Department decision allowing schools to hire private contractors to score state tests has some Long Island educators worried those contractors might try currying favor with clients by inflating grades.

So far, about 20 school districts statewide, including Manhasset, have contracted with an upstate consulting firm co-founded by a former state education official to score their tests. Current state officials, who approved the contracts, say safeguards are in place to ensure accurate scoring.

Nonetheless, some Island educators dislike the idea that private firms might start competing to score the growing number of tests mandated by President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law. On the Island, 210,000 students are scheduled to take state English assessments next month - triple the number tested last year. Test scores range from 1 to 4, with 4 the highest.

"The way you keep a client is to keep the client happy - it's human nature," said Brian M. De Sorbe, the school superintendent in Amityville, which plans to use local teachers to score tests. "If I'm getting all 1s and 2s, then I'm going to say 'You're not doing your job.' "

Expanded state testing begins Jan. 9 and continues through Jan. 20, for grades 3-8 in English. Math tests will be held March 6-17. In the past, only grades 4 and 8 were tested. Most scoring of essays that couldn't be graded by machine was done by local teachers who were tenured and, thus, secure enough in their jobs, according to supporters, to report any improprieties.

This year, however, many districts complain that extra scoring will take up too much time. Manhasset calculated that scoring would cost the equivalent of 150 lost instructional days.

Consequently, Manhasset contracted with Educational Vistas Inc., a Schenectady-based consulting firm, to do the scoring. The firm's co-founder, Bruce Crowder, a former assistant state education commissioner who retired in 1994, said his company's scoring standards are high. "When you're a private contractor, you know the world is looking at you, so you have to be especially careful," Crowder said.

Permission for districts to opt for private firms was announced in mid-November by David Abrams, an assistant state education commissioner, who stipulated that scoring would have to be done by certified teachers trained in state procedures.

Abrams' boss, James Kadamus, said the announcement was in response to districts' asking whether they could hire Educational Vistas or some other firm. Kadamus, a deputy commissioner, said he would prefer that local teachers do the scoring. He added, however, that scoring by private vendors is common in other states and that his department would review samples of firms' grading to ensure accuracy.

"It's extremely hard to game the system," Kadamus said, "but we're always on the lookout."

— John Hildebrand


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