Pearson Lands Common-Core Contract in Mississippi After Testing Standoff

Managing Editor

Mississippi officials have approved an “emergency procurement” contract with Pearson to administer common-core tests for the coming academic year—a step taken after a state board questioned the legality of the business arrangement and refused to sign off on it.

The one-year deal, which state officials said is worth $8.3 million, comes on the heels of the state’s personal service contract review board telling the state department of education that it would reject a proposed, sole-source, four-year agreement because it believed competing proposals should have been sought from other vendors.

To be approved as a sole source and awarded without competition, the service must be available from only a single supplier,”  said Deanne Mosley, executive director of the Mississippi state personnel board, which supports the contract review board, in a statement. “The company selected by New Mexico officials is not the only company which can provide these services.”

Because of the board’s stance, department of education officials say they had little choice but to approve the one-year contract to ensure that a portion of the state’s schools, scheduled to give tests in December, could do so. The other options would have been to put forward competitive sealed bids or proposals, the agency said.

The board’s decision angered department officials, who released a timeline of what they described as a lengthy and persistent effort to win approval of the contract.

“The actions of the [board] staff have created a tremendous amount of anxiety for teachers, students, and school leaders,” said Carey Wright, Mississippi’s state superintendent of education, in a statement. “Because the emergency contract is for one year only, some 300,000 students and more than 30,000 teachers will be subjected to a year of uncertainty about how students will be assessed in future years.”

Mississippi is a member of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two main consortia of states creating assessments tied to the common-core standards. Wright noted that PARCC-developed tests have already been field-tested in Mississippi, and are the only assessments in the marketplace that have received the “voice and input” of school officials and others.

The dispute in Mississippi has ties to a broader fight over a PARCC contract out of the state of New Mexico, a fracas that Education Week has been following closely.

In April, New Mexico officials approved a contract for PARCC test administration with Pearson, the only bidder on the project. A rival vendor, the American Institutes for Research, protested the bidding process, arguing that it improperly favored Pearson by bundling testing work that company was already providing PARCC with future duties administering the exam. AIR later sued in state court to stop the deal. After its appeal was rejected this summer by New Mexico’s state procurement office, the AIR scaled back its legal fight. It is now suing to try to limit the scope of the contract to one year, and to have the remainder of the deal, which it says could last either four or eight years, re-bid.

Why does a deal hatched in New Mexico matter in Mississippi? The New Mexico contract establishes a price agreement with Pearson, which other PARCC states, including Mississippi can latch onto, if they want. 

(The overall financial stakes of that Pearson vs. AIR fight could be massive in scale: In court documents, the AIR has said that if other PARCC states procure services for testing through the New Mexico deal, the contract could be worth $1 billion.)


Squaring Off

Mississippi department of education officials, in statements, have argued that they have followed the proper process, over a period of several months, in seeking a sole-source contract with Pearson.

In their timeline describing those efforts, department officials said things were rolling along until they began meeting resistance from the contract review board. What followed was an increasingly intense flood of emails and phone calls between the agency and board, trying to resolve the issue.

Mississippi department of education officials did not appear to believe the New Mexico dispute would derail their process for awarding a testing contract. After initally holding up its efforts to finalize the contract while that dispute played out, in July the department again began seeking approval from the contract-review board, after New Mexico’s state procurement officials rejected the AIR’s claim. (The department made no further mention of AIR’s recent, more-limited appeal to break up the Pearson-New Mexico agreement)

Last month, when Mississippi’s contract-review board told the department of education that the Pearson contract would not be heard by the board until September, the agency reacted with alarm—fearing the delay would jeopardize tests slated to be given to about 16,000 students in Mississippi schools later this year.

Mosley, in a statement, said that the contract-review board, after evaluating the New Mexico deal, became convinced it did not meet the legal standards of her state. Department officials had not shown that Pearson was the only company that could carry out the testing job, said Mosley, whose office declined further comment to Education Week.

“[I]t could not be approved as a legal and proper expenditure of taxpayer funds as it did not follow Mississippi procurement laws,” Mosley said. “The New Mexico officials who selected this vendor to receive the contract did not take that into account and did not follow Mississippi laws in place to protect Mississippi taxpayers.”

The department of education, however, disagrees. So it appears for now, Pearson will deliver common-core tests this year in Mississippi.

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