An Inside Look At AIR: The Most Terrifying Company In Education Reform

American Institutes for Research

The scariest company making millions of dollars from the Delaware Department of Education is not who you would think.  It’s not Pearson, or Amplify, or even the Rodel Foundation.  It is a company which has been a part of education policy longer than Common Core was even an idea.  This company sowed the seeds for No Child Left Behind and they even helped to tear down one of Bill Gates original education reform agendas.  This company is American Institutes for Research, otherwise known as AIR.

AIR is the contracted vendor to create and distribute the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the state standardized assessment in Delaware.  But they have been around in Delaware since long before this.  They were also the testing vendor for the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS) in Delaware.  To date AIR received over $35 million dollars from the Delaware DOE as per Delaware Online Checkbook.  How did Delaware bargain students to such a company?

This blog reached out to the Delaware Department of Education through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the DOE contracts with AIR, as well as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Data Recognition Corporation, the contracted company that will grade the Smarter Balanced Assessment being administered across Delaware public schools this Spring.

In my original FOIA request I asked for all contracts between the DOE and SBAC, AIR and Data Recognition Corporation as well as all documented contacts between the DOE and these companies or consortiums.  In the DOE’s response, they indicated it would cost over $7000.00.  I promptly filed a complaint with the Department of Justice.  While the results of the complaint are still under investigation, I have not received any documents from the DOE about this FOIA request.  I can say that the cost would actually be more because they forgot there was a recently signed contract in January 2015 between the Teacher Leader Effectiveness Unit at the DOE and AIR.  No contracts or memorandums of understanding are on the DOE website or the Delaware Awarded Contracts website.

For the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, Washington is the lead state in the Consortium, and I published the contract between the United States Department of Education and SBAC yesterday.  The Memorandum of Understanding for each state involved in SBAC, now handled through the Graduate School for Education at the University of California, is  most likely similar to all the states in the consortium.  Such as Idaho…

But information on American Institutes for Research is much harder to find.  Who is AIR?  The company was created in 1946 by a World War II veteran named John Flanagan.  The non-profit company creates assessments in various areas of everyday life.  Their first big project was designing recruiting strategies for Trans-World Airlines pilots.  In the late 1950’s they created a program called Project TALENT for high school students.  This program followed a large group of high school students and had them do surveys in the next eleven years to help get research on curriculum and career development.  In the business world, they invented the Supervision, Creativity, Organization, Research, Engineering, and Sales assessment to measure aptitudes of career workers in various fields.

In the 1960’s, the bulk of AIR’s work was in helping to create the requirements for Peace Corps workers and creating aptitude tests for developing countries such as Nigeria, Brazil, Liberia and South Korea.  As AIR grew in the 1970’s, they started becoming a part of public policy with the Federal government of the United States.  They did vast amounts of reports and research for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  It also delved into the area of gerontology and did reports on the effects of aging.  They also did a lot of Asthma research and public education regarding the condition and how to treat it.  The highlights of the 1980’s for AIR included designing wheelchair access for commercial airlines, commissioning a key report about intercollegiate athletics and student achievement for the NCAA, and working with women to make sure they had equal access to computer instruction.

It was in the 1990’s that AIR’s biggest forays into education began in earnest.  From their website (link to history link):

“The 1990s saw AIR helping to bring about equitable personnel policies in the military, as well as enhancing learning in the classroom through technology and spearheading an effort that helped safeguard the nation’s blood supply. AIR expanded its work throughout the world of education — from developing voluntary national tests in reading and mathematics (linked to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card”) to evaluating the nation’s largest program for strengthening high-poverty schools, from investigating the value of smaller classes to creating nationally recognized centers that share information on effective programs for children with special needs and identifying the best education technology.”

The scariest part is AIR’s role in the creation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

“AIR Develops Voluntary National Tests in Reading and Mathematics — In 1998, AIR, with six partners, won a contract to develop voluntary national tests of reading at the fourth-grade level and math at the eighth-grade level. Scores on these standardized tests linked student performance to achievement levels used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). AIR developed test items, scoring rubrics, and evaluated some of the test items with students in cognitive labs.”

During this decade, AIR also did consulting work for the military, which “improved the selection, classification, and utilization of Army personnel.” Not everything AIR does is nefarious in purpose because they did do some excellent work in terms of blood donor work during the AIDS crisis, and working on adult education practices to make that more streamlined.

AIR’s work in the nineties set them up for a very prosperous first decade of the 21st Century.  The non-profit played a key role in the No Child Left Behind creation by providing reports on education and how the United States compared to other countries.  In the early 2000’s, Bill Gates launched a ton of “small” high schools around the country thinking this would dramatically impact education.  This initial reform movement by Gates didn’t work out, and the Gates Foundation commissioned a report from AIR that indicated the problems with this initiative: while attendance was up, test scores were lower.  As well, special education issues and graduation rates were horrible according to Diane Ravitch in an article for Forbes.

Right before the United States launched the Common Core standards on an unwitting public, companies like AIR and NCEE (National Center on Education and the Economy) were launching reports left and right about how bad U.S. education was and how we had to correct this if we wanted to stay number one in the world. **link to article w/Tough Times**  These reports set the tone for the Common Core.  In Delaware, then State Treasurer Jack Markell and Paul Herdman of the Rodel Foundation were setting up their own statewide education reform movement which catapulted Markell into the Governor’s mansion in 2008 and set him up to take education by the neck and turn it into something completely different.

The same year Markell won the Governor race, AIR released a report on No Child Left Behind which addressed issues concerning some very familiar issues: teacher quality, achievement gaps, and low-income and Title I funding.  These all became the cornerstones of President Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race To The Top.

“Providing Comprehensive Data on Education — AIR experts have contributed to the development of national and international statistics about education that inform the discussion and planning of decisionmakers at national, state, and local levels. Our work includes survey and assessment design, the development of questionnaires and test items, incentive and informational materials, data editing and imputation specifications and data products. AIR produces the National Center for Education Statistics’ annual flagship report, The Condition of Education, as well as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), the Schools and Staffing Survey, and the Digest of Education Statistics, the nation’s most authoritative and comprehensive compilation of statistical information about education in the United States.”

As states were mandated to create rigorous state assessments, Delaware developed DCAS.  They put out a contract notice for bids in March of 2009, and one of the companies that issued a bid was AIR, along with Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) who created the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, and three other vendors.  When the Delaware DOE chose NWEA, AIR filed suit against the DOE.  Documents obtained by the News Journal showed that 54 % of teachers preferred the AIR proposal over NWEA.  As a result, the contract went to AIR for DCAS.

With AIR as the contract winner, the implementation and roll-out of DCAS was in place for roll-out in 2010-2011.  They already had their foot in the door in the First State with their role in the creation of The National Center on Response To Intervention (RTI) which is widely used in Delaware public schools to “help out” the students in need.  As well, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Corporation awarded AIR the contract for the Smarter Balanced Assessment in September of 2012.

AIR has been very busy the past five years cementing their role as the main assessment vendor.  The major media and bulk of education blogs such as Diane Ravitch talk about Pearson and their PARCC assessment all the time, but Smarter Balanced and AIR don’t get as much play.  With Pearson subject to many issues, and their economic outlook in the United States under advisement, AIR is in a very good place to gain more contracts in the coming years.

The Delaware DOE’s current “school accountability” initiative with letter grades given to each district comes from a seed developed by AIR.

“Breakthroughs in International Benchmarking — AIR has expanded assessment criteria to help educators and policymakers better gauge how well U.S. students are performing compared with those in other nations. AIR developed a method that calibrates U.S. and international mathematics tests on the same scale with the familiar letter grades of A, B, C, and D. This groundbreaking approach to benchmarking allows parents and policymakers to see how students are performing in comparison with their counterparts in other countries.”

AIR was very involved in the Say Yes To Education initiative in Syracuse, NY, even providing a promised $7.5 million.  Although the idea never really took off, AIR loved the fact that investors came out of the woodwork for it.

“Though it may not seem large when viewed as a percentage of education giving overall, venture philanthropy makes substantial contributions in absolute terms: at least $1.5 billion to more than 500 investees in the last decade. Additionally, venture philanthropy is growing along with the industry in general—with cash donations quadrupling over this time period—and often focuses on the most vulnerable groups in society.”

Venture philanthropy also benefits hedge fund managers and investors who make a ton of money off of these vulnerable groups.  The very fact that AIR would promote such a scheme shows they are not the unbiased group they like people to think they are.

A very creepy part about AIR is found on their website, in the section entitled Statistics and Psychometrics.  For teachers, value-added models have been the bane of their existence.  Guess who helped create them?  None other than AIR.

“AIR uses scientific sampling for field tests and advanced models for linking and equating to ensure stable test results. We customize our approach to the specific needs of each assessment program to obtain the best possible data and statistics.”

In 2014, the Delaware General Assembly realized the state’s contract with AIR for DCAS was set to expire, and with the implementation of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, House Bill 334 was introduced in March of that year.  The Delaware DOE already bought the test, and the legislators approved the bill.  Not without some controversy, but this allowed the Smarter Balanced Assessment to become the official state assessment.  With AIR as the official vendor for this assessment, the transition was seamless (how convenient for AIR).  The current contract for the Smarter Balanced Assessment contract is only for a year according to credible sources who did not want to place their name as the source.

AIR has successfully ingratiated themselves into multiple facets of society, nationally and internationally.  Their fingerprints are in education, the military, healthcare, disabilities, housing, labor and the workforce, and international relations.  To me, they are the scariest company in the world because we don’t hear enough about them.  All the concerns parents in Delaware have about the Smarter Balanced Assessment are because of policies AIR has helped to create.  They set the tones, create the product, and then unleash it on the world.  If you look at everything in education in the past twenty years, AIR is at the forefront of it all, helping to create policies and assessments specifically designed for one thing: continuous improvement.  After all, they don’t just act their part in the play, they designed the whole book the play is based on.  Based on what I have read about AIR, they will always have to issue reports about how to improve education, because if they don’t, they won’t be able to sell their product.

The US Department of Education currently has numerous contracts with AIR, as well as multiple states.  The Delaware DOE is so secretive about AIR they won’t show their contracts with them. What is the big secret they are hiding from all of us?  Could the answer be in this document:

I have no doubt they customize everything so it benefits their own company to continue selling what they want people to think they so desperately need.  This is the heart of corporate education reform.  Create the scene and show how bad things are and then give the people what they think they want.  They create the very evidence and research used to set policy, which makes them very dangerous to society as a whole.  Hundreds of thousands of parents are seeing through the illusion this Spring though as everyday more and more students are opted out of state assessments administered by either AIR or PARCC.  It is my fervent hope one day all will be exposed in regards to these companies that have transformed education for their own greedy purposes.  Until then, I will keep digging.

*The history and quoted sections in this article on AIR all came from their own website:


3 thoughts on “An Inside Look At AIR: The Most Terrifying Company In Education Reform

  1. “AIR uses scientific sampling for field tests and advanced models for linking and equating to ensure stable test results. We customize our approach to the specific needs of each assessment program to obtain the best possible data and statistics.”
    UGH!!! “There are lies, damned lies and statistics!”- Mark Twain

    Liked by 1 person

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