Thursday, May 07, 2015

A triumph of critical thinking? STATE BOARD AWARDS DISPUTED TEST CONTRACT TO ETS …NOT PEARSON (which was the low bidder)

By John Fensterwald | EdSource |

Students at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland taking computer based tests. Source: EdSource

May 6, 2015 | The State Board of Education on Wednesday awarded the Educational Testing Service a three-year, $240 million contract to administer the state’s standardized tests, despite a competitor’s call for reopening a bidding process that it called flawed and “arbitrary.”

ETS has run the state’s testing system for 13 years and was the choice of the staff of the state Department of Education and two panels of reviewers. But Pearson School, the lowest of the three bidders with a $206 million bid, protested after the state board in March gave ETS tentative approval on the condition that ETS revise its bid to replicate aspects of Pearson’s plan involving teacher training. Board members called for the involvement, “to the greatest extent possible,” of teachers in scoring the next generation of tests, at no additional cost.

A series of recent breakdowns and technical snafus with online tests in other states (see here, here and here) underscore the importance of contracting with a reliable, experienced testing company. Along with providing the software to deliver the state’s tests, the contractor responds to problems from more than a thousand districts and charter schools, oversees test scoring and delivers the results to districts and schools.

The contract with ETS will be largest awarded by the state Department of Education. The state was not required to take the lowest bid under the form of bidding that was used, and it had authority to negotiate contract changes with a preferred bidder. That’s what a team of negotiators did over three days last month, said Keric Ashley, state deputy superintendent of the District, School, and Innovation division of the Department of Education. The result was a number of changes that improved the contract, including better test security, a quicker reporting time of test results to districts, and parent guides in five languages, he told the state board. Based on Pearson’s approach, there also will be more extensive training and better hourly rates for scorers who are California teachers, he said.

But copying a significant part of another bidder’s proposal is “unprecedented in public procurements at virtually any level – federal or state,” wrote Douglas Kubach, president of Pearson School, a Minnesota-based division of Pearson, the world’s largest education publishing and consulting company, in a March 30 letter to the state board. Kubach called on the state board to begin the bidding again. Reviewers gave ETS a higher score, yet the state board instructed negotiators to adopt Pearson’s model – “unavoidably an admission (by the state board) that its scoring was significantly flawed,” he wrote.

ETS will continue to handle the administration and scoring of the new online tests, including the Smarter Balanced English language arts and math tests in the Common Core State Standards, which debuted this spring, and the yet-to-be developed Next Generation Science Standards. The tests feature more sophisticated performance tasks, requiring students to write essays and show their work. Individual scorers will grade these portions of the test.

Pearson’s proposal promised professional development for California teachers in these tasks through county offices of education. It said it would hire WestEd, the San Francisco-based nonprofit research and development organization that is developing Common Core and new science curricula, to lead the trainings. The proposal said it would increase the number of California teachers as test scorers by paying them $17 to $19 per hour.

Patricia Rucker, who works as a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, called $20 per hour “insufficient” and predicted that fewer than half of the scorers will end up being teachers.

For this year’s initial Smarter Balanced tests, ETS is paying only $13 per hour to scorers. The state reports that only 10 percent of the scorers will be California educators, and not all of those will be certificated teachers.

In its revised bid, ETS said it will hold summer institutes and weekend trainings for teachers and would pay California certificated teachers $20 per hour to be trained in and score the tests. Ashley acknowledged that’s less than teachers earn per hour, but the primary benefit, he said, would be the knowledge that teachers would gain in both the end-of-the-year tests and the interim assessments that teachers would give during the year.

However, board member Patricia Rucker, who works as a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, called $20 per hour “insufficient” and predicted that fewer than half of the scorers will end up being teachers. Teachers “carry the greatest burden to see that students are prepared and have the greatest stake” in the test results, and yet still will not be not the primary focus of the recruitment strategy for scorers, she said.

During public testimony, Doug McRae, a retired specialist in assessments who did work for both ETS and Pearson during his career, said that ETS failed to match Pearson’s commitment to train teachers and did not specify how it would pay for the professional development it promised. Giving ETS the contract, McRae said, would be “an insult to a fair, open, competitive process, as well as an insult to California public schools and taxpayers by opting for an inferior submission at a far higher price.”

But board members Sue Burr and Rucker praised Ashley and the negotiators for responding to the state board’s concerns. And one of the reviewers of the bids, Roger Yoho, assessment and accountability director of Corona-Norco Unified, said the 10-day process was thorough and professionally done. He supported the choice of ETS.

ETS has handled the rollout of the Smarter Balanced tests, which 3.2 million students in California are now taking. Ashley said that, unlike significant outages and technical problems in other states, testing in California has gone smoothly for the most part. Susan Green, director of assessments for San Juan Unified, told board members that online testing has gone well in her district. “Changing the contract could put a halt to the progress we have made so far,” she said. “ETS has met our need.”

John Fensterwald covers education policy.

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