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Procurement team recommends AIR for state tests

The non-profit American Institutes for Research should develop and administer the state's new standardized tests, a Florida Department of Education procurement team recommended on Tuesday.

The recommendation is not binding, despite a unanimous vote from the five-member team. 

The final decision rests with state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. 

The education department is looking for a contractor to create, administer and score new assessments. The tests will be aligned to the new Florida Standards, education benchmarks based on the controversial Common Core State Standards.

Five groups submitted proposals in hopes of winning the contract: ACT, the American Institutes for Research, CTB/McGraw-Hill, McCann Associates and Pearson.

The proposals won't be made available to the public until Stewart makes her final selection. But some details were aired Tuesday, when members of the DOE negotiation team met to make their joint recommendation.

Among them: ACT and McCann Associates did not make the final round of negotiations.

Team members said CTB had submitted a competitively priced proposal. But they worried the plan would require students to spend more time taking tests than they currently do under the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test system.

There was also some hesitation to choose CTB because the company has not developed high-school tests yet, team member and Deputy Education Commissioner Juan Copa said.

The team considered Pearson's experience in Florida a plus. (Pearson held Florida's previous testing contract, worth more than $250 million.) Members were concerned, however, that Pearson would have to develop a completely new exam, and that the company wanted field tests in the fall. 

AIR, on the other hand, did not need a "stand-alone field test," Copa said.

Another feature the committee seemed to like: AIR's tests could be given later in the school year. (Critics of the FCAT say the exams take place too early in the year, discouraging the teaching of new material once testing is over.)

Copa said the cost was "high," but added that AIR provides "a number of opportunities for cost savings."

It is too soon to say if Stewart will take the recommendation or choose another vendor.

There is also a wild card to consider: the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness, or PARCC. The multi-state consortium is creating new assessments that can be used to measure mastery of the Common Core State Standards.

Florida had initially planned to use the so-called PARCC tests. But Tea Party groups complained about federal overreach last year, prompting Gov. Rick Scott to push for other options.

PARCC officials said funding issues prevented the consortium from participating in the competitive bidding process. PARCC did however, submit 51 pages of information on its exams, as well as a letter to the Florida Department of Education asking to be considered.

Stewart could not select PARCC as part of the procurement process. But there has been some speculation that she could reject the five proposals, and then decide to go with PARCC.

She plans to make a decision in March.