Top S.C. Procurement Office Faults $58M Test-Contract Award to ACT

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South Carolina’s top procurement official has found that the state violated its bidding laws in the process of awarding a $58 million testing contract to the ACT, and has ordered that the majority of the contract—after year one—be re-bid.

In a written ruling, the state’s chief procurement officer, Michael B. Spicer, said he would allow the contract with the ACT to proceed for this academic year, noting that nixing the overall deal would disrupt statewide assessments being conducted this spring.

But Spicer said the remaining two years of testing called for in the state’s request for propsal would have to be put out for bid again.

The ACT will have the opportunity to appeal the decision before a statement procurement review panel later this month.

The only other company to bid for the South Carolina testing contract, the Data Recognition Corporation, based in Maple Grove, Minn., protested the awarding of the deal to the ACT last fall on several grounds.

One of those complaints was that the ACT did not adequately answer questions posed in the state’s initial request for proposal, but was ultimately awarded the testing contract, by a panel that evaluated company bids, anyway.

Specifically, the complaint alleged that the ACT did not spell out plans to help the state develop achievement levels for students taking the test, but instead agreed to do so only at an additional cost; and that ACT did not develop a workable plan to provide online student reports on the tests, which would cover English/language arts and math across grade levels.

Spicer rejected several of the DRC’s complaints. But he agreed that the ACT had not addressed the achievement level-and-reporting questions, finding that the organization’s proposal was not “responsive” on those points, and thus the award had been made in violation of the law.

A spokesman for the ACT, Ed Colby, said in a statement that the Iowa City, Iowa-based organization would not comment on the dispute, and was focused on making sure this spring’s exams go smoothly.

“[T]hroughout this entire process we have supported the state of South Carolina to best serve its students, educators and parents by providing high-quality assessments and meaningful data, and we will continue to do so,” Colby said.

Both organizations are well-known players in the world of assessment. DRC, for instance, touts its experience having developed and managed computer-based tests, not only in South Carolina, but in Alaska, Idaho, Pennsylvania, and other states.

Battles over lucrative state testing contracts are not uncommon. One disagreement that has received much more attention than the South Carolina protest is playing out in New Mexico, where the Washington-based American Institutes for Research is challenging the award of a potentially enormous contract to Pearson for testing associated with the common-core standards, a standoff that could potentially affect testing in multiple states.

When the DRC filed its initial complaint last year, Spicer’s office put in place a hold on the awarding of the contract to the ACT. Spicer later agreed to lift that hold and allow the contract to go forward, after numerous officials, including Marcia A. Adams, the executive director of the South Carolina Budget and Control Board, argued that the delay could undermine the state’s ability to carry out assessments on time.

Others  also warned about the consequences of delaying the tests.

Melanie D. Barton, the executive director of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, told state officials in a letter that a protracted testing dispute would not only make it more difficult to administer the statewide exams, it would have spillover effects, such as teachers and principals—who by state law, will be evaluated by student test results—not knowing how to prepare students for exams with unfamiliar content.

The oversight committee is a nonpartisan group of educators, business, and elected officials charged with enacting South Carolina state education policy

“Time is a critical component,” Barton wrote, adding: “The longer these unknowns go unanswered, the longer the state’s 82 districts and approximately 1,260 schools are unable to plan for the spring assessment.”

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