Pearson, a global education giant and favorite target of critics of corporations engaged in public education, is urging California officials to re-bid a statewide testing contract potentially worth a quarter of a billion dollars, arguing that a tentative agreement with a rival vendor is misguided, and illegal.
California officials have agreed on the parameters of a three-year, $240 million deal with ETS, the state’s current testing vendor, for a new contract to oversee statewide tests across a range of subjects, including math, English/language arts, and science.
The state’s accord with ETS is still under negotiation, explained Pam Slater, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, in an e-mail. The testing organization and the state will have to reach a deal on several points before a final contract is presented to the state’s board of education for approval in May.
The nation’s most populous state received bids to take on the massive project from three companies: ETS, Pearson, and CTB/McGraw-Hill.
Pearson submitted the lowest-cost bid, at $205 million. But the company’s objections to the overall procurement process go far beyond having turned in the cheapest testing plan.
In a letter to state officials, Pearson alleges that the state improperly allowed Lawrenceville, N.J.-based ETS to take one of Pearson’s proposed testing strategies—for having teachers score assessment results—then let the rival vendor incorporate that plan in its final proposal. Ultimately, Pearson wasn’t given credit by reviewers for having a superior strategy, the company says.
The company also contends that California state officials improperly destroyed public records related to their evaluations of the company. State officials say the procedures they followed were routine and appropriate, but Pearson, in its letter, says the destruction of notes by reviewers of the various proposals was “illegal” and “renders the procurement invalid.”
“In a climate where there are doubts about the fairness and openness of a procurement process, contractors who are not incumbents may not be willing to invest to compete and win contracts,” Douglas Kubach, the president of Pearson’s school division, asserted in a March 30 letter to state officials, “taxpayers will suffer as a result, losing the benefits of innovation and the best value that comes from competition.”
Search for Records
Pearson, a worldwide company based in New York and London, also questions the overall scoring process used by state reviewers, saying it was vague, confusing to the companies, and that it produced skewed scores for the vendors who bid.
In Kubach’s letter, he quotes an unnamed California Department of Education official saying the agency had “shredded” documents related to procurement. The California official allegedly said the documents were destroyed because they were related to notes taken by individuals, not the consensus of all the reviewers, according to Kubach, who said says destroying the records violated the law.
Since “critical documentation has been destroyed, the entire process is suspect,” Kubach stated. “Frankly, one would have expected a process more focused on transparency rather than a process designed to frustrate any dissention.”
In a statement to Education Week, California’s deputy schools superintendent, Keric Ashley, said “it is standard operating practice to discard individual notes when using a consensus scoring process, adding that, “individual notes can be misleading. The group scores are publicly available.”
Ashley also said that while Pearson had secured the lowest-cost bid of the three proposals, that wasn’t the only factor state officials needed to consider.
“Although costs are important, the most important consideration is the technical ability of a company to test 3.2 million students each year,” Ashley said, “including providing reliable scores and reporting those scores in a timely fashion.”
A spokesman for ETS, Tom Ewing, said in a statement that the company would not comment on the bidding process, or Pearson’s complaints, given the “ongoing nature of the contractual process.”
But ETS is “proud of the work we have done for the state of California, and are proud of having submitted a proposal rated the highest by a careful and independent process,” Ewing said. “Across the board, reviewers found our approach of the highest quality.”
Pearson is on the other end of complaint over another, potentially enormous testing contract in another state.
The American Institutes for Research, a testing organization, is suing in New Mexico to halt the award of a testing contract to Pearson by a group of states belonging to the Partnerships for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium that has developed common-core tests.
The AIR argues that the bidding process improperly bundled testing work that Pearson had already won through a separate contract, giving the company an unfair upper hand. The lawsuit seeks to cut off the multi-year testing deal after year one, and have it re-bid.