California Approves Disputed Contract for State Testing With ETS

Senior Editor


California’s state board of education has approved a contract for assessments valued at $240 million with the Educational Testing Service, despite a rival bidder’s complaint that the procurement process was illegal and unfair.

The state board on Wednesday gave its final approval to the deal. The global education company Pearson has alleged that reviewers of the contract used a flawed scoring process and improperly discarded records documenting how they ranked the bidders for the work.

ETS has the current contract to oversee testing in California. But winning the new deal for statewide testing linked to the common-core standards marks a significant victory for the Lawrenceville, N.J.-based vendor, which is a well-established player in the assessment world.

The overall market for summative assessments has been valued at about $1.2 billion a year, and the California deal, worth about $80 million per year, would represent a major chunk of that.

State officials announced tentative plans in March to award the contract to ETS, and the state board’s vote this week gives final approval to the agreement. (Details on the state’s agreement with ETS, which included several revised provisions, are available here.]

“My colleagues and I are proud of the work we have done for the state of California for the past decade and proud of the proposal we submitted,” said John Oswald, ETS’ vice president and chief operating officer of K-12 assessments, in a statement. “We are pleased the board reaffirmed that ETS is best equipped to effectively test, score and provide reliable information for the state’s 6 million students.”

State board of education president Michael Kirst, in an interview, declined comment on Pearson’s objections to the process. He described the work ETS was being hired to do as “extremely important,” and challenging, given the task of testing such as big student population.

“Administering the assessments and getting them operationally implemented in the right way is a gigantic challenge [for] the state,” Kirst said.

Ultimately California officials came away “very satisfied” with the final contract with ETS, he added.

California officials received bids to take on the work from three vendors, all of whom are well known in the industry: McGraw-Hill Education CTB, ETS, and Pearson. State reviewers judged bidders on test scoring, assessment security, test administration, reporting, and other areas. They gave ETS the top score, 932 points, with CTB next at 794, and Pearson coming in third with 769.

But Pearson officials claim the scoring process was deeply flawed.

In a letter to California state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson and state school board President Michael W. Kirst, the company said that state reviewers improperly allowed the ETS to essentially usurp one of Pearson‘s proposed testing strategies—having teachers score assessment results—and include it as ETS’ own idea.

California officials told Education Week that under the state’s current contract with ETS, individuals scoring the test are paid $13 an hour for scoring the exams. Under the new contract, certified teachers in California will be paid $20 an hour.

Not everyone is satisfied with that provision. State board member Patricia Rucker, who is also a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, said the $20-an-hour payment is “insufficient” and predicted that fewer than half the scorers would be teachers, according to a report in the California publication EdSource.

Doug McRae, a retired testing industry executive who followed the bidding process, argued that ETS’ revised proposal for scoring did not match Pearson’s original vision.

He also questioned whether ETS could deliver on its plans at the contract price it was proposing.

“[A] detailed comparison of the negotiated ETS scope and budget to Pearson’s initial submission makes it crystal clear that Pearson had a far better approach and work plan for California’s [testing] program, and a substantially lower price,” McRae said in written version of his comments to the board.  Accepting ETS’ bid, he argued, would be an “insult to California public schools and taxpayers by opting for an inferior submission at a far higher price.”

Pearson also said California officials improperly destroyed public records by allowing individual reviewers to discard their notes. A Pearson official complained that those actions were “illegal” and rendered the procurement “invalid.”

The company also noted that it had turned in the lowest-cost proposal of the three bidders—$206 million over three years—but received a lower score from reviewers for price than CTB, which turned in a bid for $224 million. The state did not adequately explain its reasoning for judging the bidders’ prices proposal, Pearson has said.

California officials have said that Pearson’s claims miss the mark. In statements to Education Week last month, state officials said they had not told ETS to adopt Pearson’s plan for training teachers to score tests—only that California wants the vendor to use the state’s teachers “to the greatest extent possible.”

The state also said it is “standard operating practice” for individual state reviewers to toss out their notes when the scoring process is made by consensus of a group. California offiicials also said that price was just one factor in judging the bids, so Pearson’s cost proposal did not guarantee victory.

We’ll see how Pearson responds to the state’s plans to move forward with the ETS contract.

[UPDATE: This post has been updated with additional reaction to state board’s vote on the award to ETS.]

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