State’s choice of testing contractor disputed

March 15, 2015

Deputy State Superintendent Keric Ashley.

The State Board of Education last week endorsed the current contractor’s three-year, quarter-billion-dollar bid to continue administering the state’s standardized testing system – but only if it agrees to extensively involve teachers in scoring the parts of the new tests on the Common Core standards that can’t be done by machine.

Board members voted unanimously to approve Educational Testing Service’s contract on the condition the company duplicate the teacher-participation model that a losing bidder, Pearson School, a division of the textbook and education giant Pearson, had proposed. Pearson’s plan was closer to the original vision of educators such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, who, in pitching the Smarter Balanced test to California education officials, had said that involving teachers in scoring “performance tasks” would improve classroom instruction.

Pearson’s proposal said that training in scoring would be part of a larger professional development effort in the Common Core standards. County offices of education would provide the teacher trainings in local schools. The nonprofit research agency WestEd and the Sacramento County Office of Education would be hired to lead the initiative.

Doug Kubach, CEO and president of Pearson School, said if the state goes through with its plan to adopt Pearson’s strategy to work with teachers even though it rejected the company’s bid, Pearson would probably file a lawsuit. Evidence would show, he said, that state officials preferred ETS from the start.

“We typically don’t do litigation – it’s an uphill struggle with a high barrier of evidence – but this case is so egregious that there may be no alternative,” Kubach said in an interview. “We had hoped the state board would have taken more time to fully evaluate the proposals.”

California Department of Education officials defended the bidding process as fair and thorough. It included two evaluation panels made up of department employees and other local district appointees followed by a review by an outside consultant. In a March 6 letter to the state board recommending ETS’s selection, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the process was designed to exceed state regulations ensuring a “competitive and open process” based on standardized scoring criteria.

Pearson School is the Minnesota-based assessment division of British-based Pearson, the world’s largest education publishing and services company. It and McGraw-Hill’s California Test Bureau lost out in a three-bid competition to ETS, which for 13 years has had the contract to administer the state’s standardized testing program, including the first year of Smarter Balanced, the new assessments of the Common Core standards.

“I feel fortunate that (the California Department of Education) received three responsive proposals from three highly respected companies,” Torlakson wrote in his March 6 letter to the state board. Then, explaining the choice, he said, “ETS’s flexibility and corporate agility will allow negotiations and scope(s) of work to benefit” the state, its teachers and students.

The department will now have two months to negotiate the terms of the contract with ETS before returning to the state board for final approval in May.

Pearson ranked lowest among the three bidders, whose proposals underwent technical reviews. It received 769 points out of a possible 1,200, compared with 794 for McGraw-Hill and 932 for ETS. ETS outscored Pearson in areas including assessment development, test security and administration, technology support and its overall comprehensive plan and schedule of deliverables of the online assessments.

Pearson got little credit – only 9 extra points – for submitting the lowest bid of $206 million, which was $34 million less than ETS’s. McGraw-Hill got a slightly higher score in the cost category even though its bid was $17 million more than Pearson’s, at $223 million – which Kubach found befuddling. A summary of the analysis of the cost didn’t explain why.

Some board members, however, were drawn to Pearson’s extensive plan to include California teachers in scoring the sections of the online Smarter Balanced math and English-language arts tests that require students to show writing and research skills and to explain how they solved problems and demonstrated critical thinking. These sections are more complex than previous California Standards Tests.

Teachers would be paid $17 to $19 per hour, and the trainings would be the largest expense of the overall contract, Kubach said.

ETS and McGraw-Hill also promised extensive teacher involvement in the hand-scoring process. But ETS is struggling to meet that goal as it administers this spring’s initial Smarter Balanced test. It has recruited more than 6,000 scorers, of which it expects to certify about half. So far, fewer than 250 of those scorers are teachers, it reported. ETS is paying $13 per hour and requires that a scorer hold a college degree.

In their discussion following short presentations by each bidder, several board members singled out Pearson for its commitment to hire only teachers to hand-score parts of the new Smarter Balanced tests.

Board member Trish Williams commended all three proposals while praising Pearson’s inclusion of WestEd specifically because of its expertise on the Next Generation Science Standards and in science and math education, and the commitment to involving teachers. “Relying on teachers will be critical going forward,” she said. She noted that Pearson’s proposed cost was “quite a bit less expensive.” (see note below)**

Patricia Rucker, who is employed as a lobbyist by the California Teachers Association, said she supported Pearson’s bid because there was a “qualitative difference” in intent to exclusively recruit teachers for the hand-scoring. She also acknowledged the irony of her choice. For teachers who view new academic standards as a vehicle for a multibillion-dollar market for new textbooks, assessments and services, Pearson, as the biggest player, has become their shorthand for corporate profiteering. It has become a target for invective on Twitter and attacks by writers such as education historian Diane Ravitch and a recent investigative piece by Stephanie Simon of Politico. Unlike Pearson, ETS is a nonprofit corporation.

Controversies also have fed Pearson’s reputation. The FBI is investigating Los Angeles Unified’s contract with Apple Computer and Pearson, which were to supply iPads pre-loaded with Pearson’s Common Core curriculum. The investigation is focused on allegations that the companies may have had an inside track in negotiations with Superintendent John Deasy and his chief deputy. In December 2013, Pearson agreed to pay the state of New York $7.7 million to settle charges that its charitable foundation illegally developed products for, and steered clients to, the company’s for-profit operations.

Rucker said her mailbox is filled daily with complaints about corporate involvement in education and the “pedantic mania about assessments.” But, she said, only one vendor – Pearson – addressed the level of teacher involvement and a decentralized approach to teacher training that California teachers advocate.

In the end, all board members agreed with the department’s recommendation of ETS after Torlakson said that teacher participation would be strengthened during the contract negotiations. Board member Ilene Straus’s motion to move forward with ETS included a provision that basically called for copying Pearson’s approach on teacher scoring.

Kubach characterized making approval of a bidder conditional on taking the ideas and plans of a competitor “not customary and unethical.” But Keric Ashley, an interim deputy superintendent involved in overseeing the contract bidding, denied that the conditional approval was improper.

“There is certainly nothing unethical about the State getting the best product from its resources – ideas and approaches to recruiting teachers are not proprietary,” he wrote in an email. “This isn’t a case of taking someone else’s software.”

Kubach also blasted the department for shredding the notes of the individual evaluators and comments on the proposals that led to the scoring. “The public will never know how they evaluated and reached a consensus. There should be public records that the process was fair and accurate.”

Ashley defended the process. “Individual notes are shredded because they are only that – the notes by an individual. The only scoring and comments that count are the consensus scoring and comments,” he wrote, adding that the board received those. “The individual notes aren’t relevant once the scores are discussed and agreed upon.” He said a lack of thoroughness was one of the reasons Pearson’s bid received the lowest score.

The sole member of the public to view the extensive submission documents and to speak at the hearing on the contract, Doug McRae, sided with Kubach in his public comments. McRae, a retired specialist in assessments who was employed primarily for McGraw-Hill but did work for the other two vendors during his career, called the evaluation process “extremely flawed.” The ratings on bid costs “isn’t credible at all,” and other aspects of the evaluation should have revealed very close ratings that would have improved Pearson’s chances as the low bidder, he said in a statement before the board vote.

“The bottom line is that overall Pearson had a very competitive proposal with the lowest bid,” he wrote. “The state board should recognize this reality, and select Pearson.”

** This  story was updated on March 17 with a correction. It had incorrectly stated that board member Trish Williams recommended that the board select Pearson for the contract. 

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