Outside the Santiago Veve Calzada School, in Fajardo, a ninth-grade student walks with her mother. It is noon and the three schools that run on this campus on an “interlocking” model   are changing shifts. The youngster took the Baseline diagnostic test, which seeks to measure the academic lag of students. When   asked about the process, the youngster   simply    shakes her head, as if to say no. Her mother asks hers to speak up and describe her experience.

“A mess,” she said, asking not to be identified. The mother steps in and says that it was “like three days” of testing, but in reality “it was all in a rush.” The student admits that she simply completed them without giving it much importance.

Another student walks down the sidewalk in front of the school and joins the conversation with his mom. He is in the eighth grade.

“I don’t remember the English [test]. I don’t think I answer   that one,” he said laughing. “But I did them as usual, quickly, forget about it,” he assures. He also said he just got them over with quickly or just didn’t give it much thought. “It’s just sitting at the computer all that time…,” he said with the attitude of a playful kid.

The Baseline Test that the students mention are part of an academic recovery plan endorsed by the Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education (DE) after the interruptions caused by COVID-19, to reduce the persisting academic lag among students. 

The 2020-2021 school year ended with 24,740 students failing to pass grade, representing 9% of the DE’s total enrollment for the year. To address the academic crisis, the DE is betting on “the collection and analysis of data that allow understanding the current situation from different perspectives to establish work plans aligned to the current necessities .”

“Flip-flopping” on the test goals

In February, under the tenure of Elba Aponte, the DE   signed a $10.4 million contract with Pearson, to administer the META (Measurement and Evaluation for Academic Transformation) tests. About 16 days prior to the signing of the Pearson contract, the DE had requested a waiver from testing, in accordance with section 8401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, “so that the USDE [US Department of Education] authorize an exemption regarding the requirement of the ESSA Act to administer the state standardized tests (META) and its alternate version.”

In other words, just shy of two weeks before reaching the multi-million-dollar agreement with Pearson, the DE told the federal government that it could not comply with running the META tests in the 2020-2021 school year, “due to the experienced emergencies and their consequences, including the need to guarantee student safety,” according to the official document.

Although for the second year in a row, META tests were not administered in public schools, the contract with Pearson remained in place for the agreed period: February 26 – September 30, 2021. To justify the contract, instead of META tests, a diagnostic test was offered “to collect data,” Guillermo López Díaz, Deputy Secretary of Academic and Program Affairs, explained.

“We know that the results [of the Baseline diagnostic tests] aren’t necessarily going to reflect what the students know,” he told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish). “But since we already have a contract with them [Pearson] and we know that we need to continue collecting data on how our students are doing, then those tests are applied. We ask them to use the platform and we insert that analysis of results that produce well-detailed reports, aligned by students and the skill that they don’t master, into their profile. In other words, what we’re doing is taking advantage of a contract, so that the funds are not lost, to be able to use them, using them most efficiently,” he said.

Even though the changes are not reflected in the contract available in the Comptroller’s Office digital file, Acting Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés, said “the necessary adjustments were made to use the funds already allocated and used   the Baseline Test as a diagnostic test.”

A new multi-million-contract contract with Pearson appears in the Comptroller’s Office to also lead a curricular review that aims to temper the standards and expectations for kindergarten through 12th grade, in English, Mathematics, Science, Spanish and Social Studies.

The deputy secretary explained that one of the goals is to create a student profile, an initiative “in which all teachers, social workers, counselors, nurses and directors will have data in a dashboard. They will have data on academic, socio-emotional, and health aspects. All the data that we’re collecting in the system will be there, accessible to teachers, so they can make better decisions with the system’s whole   academic team.”

However, a little over a month before the end of the semester, this dashboard is still not accessible to any of the 14 teachers that the CPI interviewed, who also claimed not to have received information on managing this student online profile.

Since August 2015, Pearson has accrued $84.2 million in contracts with the DE.

Between 2018 and 2020, the DE’s enrollment dropped by 15%, while proficiency in Spanish, English and Mathematics that the META tests collect shows a decrease in the annual results of each of these subjects since   the last year they were offered (2019).

When examining the DE’s annual graduation rate from 2018 to 2020, it shows an improvement from 73.86% to 78.05%, respectively.

“The Baseline diagnostic test [replacement for the META according to the last contract and focused on students from second to 12th grade] is that it is the first analysis that we’re going to do to see how the students are doing,” Deputy Secretary López Diaz insisted. “What we’re doing is transferring the efforts put into the META into a diagnostic test. The whole process of generating random instruments, generating platforms, reporting results, all of these are services that they [Pearson] offer in this contract and we’re using them for this test,” he said.

“And using that [student] profile we move to the second area of attention, which is academic interventions focused on the acceleration of learning. We’ve already offered training with the support of the University of Puerto Rico. What this educational model does is that it helps to identify which student is not reaching the goals   that they should   and we  then  create   subgroups to conduct more profound interventions,” he said.

A haphazard process

The common denominator in the   multiple testimonies from teachers from different educational regions interviewed by the CPI when discussing the experience in administering the diagnostic Baseline Test is three issues: misinformation, insufficient   resources, and a high degree of improvisation.

They said the DE’s initial goal was to diagnose the lag in August, but in October, the process was not yet done. Many students could not complete the tests, either due to absences, failures in the internet service in schools or other reasons that hampered the process, which was done on computers.

According to documents that the CPI had access to, as of Aug. 31, 37 of 122 schools in the Humacao Educational Region had not yet administered the Baseline Tests to any student. Others had only tested some students but were not a representative number of their official enrollment.

As of October 15, 15,567 ninth-grade students had taken the Spanish and English test at the island level, according to a summary report from the DE, which represents 70% if adjusted for the enrollment of 22,311 students in 2021. Meanwhile, 17,201 ninth graders (77%) had done the same with the math test at the Puerto Rico-wide level.

The DE extended the deadline of these processes until Oct. 20.

A week ago, the DE said that teachers should offer a new diagnostic test to students in grades 1 through 12 on Oct. 25 and Nov. 5. “This initiative proposes a system of tests of the five basic subjects [Science, Spanish, Social Studies, English and Mathematics] aligned to the standards, expectations and indicators of each grade that will be administered every 10 weeks,” the agency’s announcement states.

Acting Secretary of Education, Eliezer Ramos Parés.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

Igna Fontánez is an elementary-level English teacher at a school in the Humacao region where the Baseline Tests were offered and submitted on time.

“We didn’t have the audio for the first part [of the English test],” is the first thing the teacher remembers. “I volunteered to read the material to all the groups.” Fontánez went from classroom to classroom to read that part of the English test to the students. That took her a whole  day.

Four out of five groups benefited from the educator’s voluntary reading, “but one of the groups submitted the test without waiting to hear that part of the audio,” she said. So, they either answered the exercises without listening to it or they simply skipped that part . Each student answered their test online, through a computer.

“Digital is complicated, because first, the link that the computer had was expired, it didn’t work [to gain access to the online platforms]. We had to get the students in through Google. They had created that link last semester at the end of the school year. I had to access   in through the link that they emailed me,” she said. “The principal created the accounts for the teachers.”

There was very little training. “They sent a PowerPoint; I think it was more than 80 slides. I knew they weren’t going to have the audio [of the English test], because the instructions said that they were going to have the audio through third grade. From fourth grade on, the teacher had to read it. But they didn’t know that at school. We also didn’t have the script for the audio. That principal looked for the script   [when they came across the situation while administering the tests]. That’s why I had to go to each room   to read to the groups.”

Fontánez called the process chaotic   and counterproductive.

“They dragged the process so much that it took a lot of school time, and right now we’re well behind in terms of subject matter. At least I am. For me it was unnecessary because it’s administering something that we already have. We already have that information [of what students are proficient or not proficient in] in diagnostic tests [given by teachers in their classroom at the beginning of the semester]. That [the Baseline Tests] was a diagnostic test using the META test practice exercises. It was nothing new. The only innovative thing was that they made it digital.”

The teacher insists that “they kept extending the [deadline] and I had to keep repeating and repeating the process in my homeroom, giving the test to students who had not taken it. In other words, I took time out of English class to administer   this test, because they kept extending the date, extending the date, sending messages saying to give the test to the students who hadn’t taken it. All this while they were supposed to be in English class.”

Javier Santiago is an elementary school teacher. He teaches Social Studies in Utuado, in the central mountainous region,  and his testimony coincides with Fontánez’s, the English teacher from the Humacao in the East coast  . In fact, at Santiago’s school they also had problems with the audio portion of the English test. They administered it “as we   could.”

“Internet access at the school wasn’t working,” he says. “They decided to extend the date to be able to administer the tests and they were offered virtually through the Teams platform. There was very little information. The students weren’t clear about the objective of the test because we [the teachers] didn’t know it either. There was no format for knowing what we were going to do first. It turns out that we didn’t have enough time. It had to be extended. In the English test there was an auditory section, and the audio wasn’t available. They gave us some guides, which they sent by email, and some scripts for that auditory part, but it was very hard to coordinate it because there were students who were taking a Spanish test and others in Math or Science. We couldn’t control whether the students moved on to the next test through the virtual modality, so it created a lot of confusion.”

Santiago said there were students who did not have their answer test sheet because they were enrolled a few days after the beginning   of the school semester. “Pearson didn’t have that information,” Santiago said. “Those students simply didn’t take the tests, because their information wasn’t available, and they couldn’t access the platform.”

According to the educator, the process was limited to complying with the requirement to administer the test and collect data “that will be wasted,” since he believes that it isn’t used for the benefit of the student. “This information isn’t analyzed, it isn’t developed, and it isn’t discussed,” said Santiago. Last semester the application of the Baseline Test began as a pilot project with certain grades. This year they gave it to all grades.

Regarding the test results, the teacher said: “I don’t know if a report will be given at some point during the semester. But the truth is that the semester is already halfway through. The student loses interest and doesn’t have   a sense of belonging or relevance [to the processes]. What has been evidenced over time is that this is to accomplish   something   that isn’t [related to] the students.”

Ramos Parés assured the CPI that “from the start, we’re looking at which skills of the previous grade the students ultimately mastered,” although he admitted there is still no official report specifying that information and analysis. However, the deputy secretary for Academic and Program Affairs said this analysis is done at the central level, to “determine how we present the teacher with a tool that facilitates the decision-making process using the data.”

According to the DE officials,   the development of plans or tools to address the academic lag  besides and beyond the investment in tests and the dashboard, will fall on each school community: teachers, principals, and support staff.

“Today we have about 700 schools with school psychologists and other support personnel to look  for strategies [to address the academic lag] together with the school directors,” said Ramos Parés.

  Dr. Ricardo Guadalupe Falero, principal in the   Rafael N. Coca School in Luquillo, acknowledges that the idea of measuring academic lag through tests was a good one. But he stressed that the problem is the “disconnection” because of poor   communication and the general ignorance of   the realities of school/s realities at the  central level (of the Department of Education).

“This school has 285 students. I would say that only half was able to take the tests [as of Oct. 15]. Some students were absent, others didn’t bring a computer to connect and had to wait for a peer to finish…Many factors. The idea was that the data would help build a complete  [student] profile. But I don’t know what’s going to happen, because I haven’t seen anything about the profile,” the director told the CPI the same day that the DE announced at a press conference the launch of the Extended Academic Reinforcement project, another initiative that seeks to “close gaps in learning and increase student achievement,” focused on extended hours in 795 schools.

The DE blames the pandemic for the lag

Considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ramos Parés requested a waiver from the US Department of Education (USDE) in May, related to the duration period of the funds granted for fiscal years 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. Even though the DE got access to the 2019-2020 funds in March, the Acting Secretary told the federal agency that “it hasn’t been possible, nor will it be possible, to allocate the funds in a timely manner.”

The deadline to use the funds was Sept. 30, and Ramos Parés requested “additional time, until Sept. 30, 2022, to obligate the funds from the aforementioned fiscal years.”

“There are preliminary plans for each of the funding programs that are submitted. There is a task force working to organize a five-year financial plan for the Department. However , we want the money that the Department has available, to respond to the strategic plan. We’re putting together   all the plans per program to look at them long term, look at the life of these funds within the next five years, to have a single financial plan and that financial plan, like the strategic plan, has its metrics,” the Acting Secretary said at a press conference. 

“Just like I’ve told my staff, this strategic plan is basically the route and the map that we’re going to follow. It addresses the issue of reconstruction in our schools, the issue of infrastructure, it includes the issue of reorganization in terms of the Department’s operational structure to respond to our schools in an agile way. And it addresses the key issue and the Department’s reason for being, which is the academic issue and how we’re going to address it,” he added.

According to Ramos Parés, the closure of schools, because of the health crisis and the earthquakes, is “the most basic explanation” to justify why the DE has not maximized the use of the funds   that they have had available in recent years.

“We weren’t in schools, so obviously the system’s spending was significantly reduced, because even when the system did respond in terms of creativity, of how to provide that service, it wasn’t really the same expense,” he said.

Ramos Parés believes this explains the number of projects or initiatives that are on hold or why the totality of available funds has not been used in many projects.

“An example of this is 21st Century’s own funds. The truth is that many of these projects were interrupted by the pandemic. Likewise, the issue of earthquakes, because it had that impact, so that’s the reason for having requested [more time to be able to comply with the initiatives],” Ramos Parés said. “From now on” and “thanks to the data,” addressing the lag will be different, he assured.

José M. Encarnación is a member of Report for America.