Testing company fined in California for second year

October 31, 2016

This story was updated Nov. 2 to reflect the State Board of Education vote.

After it was fined $3.1 million last year for not fulfilling its contract, the company that administers the state’s standardized tests was again penalized for failing to meet all requirements of its contract with the state this year.

However, the fine was much smaller than last year. The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to withhold nearly $272,000, or 3 percent, from more than $8.6 million still owed to the Educational Testing Service, or ETS. That penalty was based on a recommendation from the California Department of Education and represented about 0.3 percent of the total contract.

A staff report prepared for this week’s state board meeting said ETS should be fined for “not satisfactorily providing accurate and complete reports of test results” to educational agencies and “not satisfactorily meeting all reporting requirements.”’

The state has a contract with ETS that included $86.4 million for the 2015-16 school year. Last spring, schools administered the Smarter Balanced tests in English and math to about 3.2 million students in grades 3-8 and 11.

Last year, the board withheld $3.1 million, or about 4 percent, of its $83 million contract with ETS for failure to meet contract requirements related to processing, scoring, analysis and reporting of test results for the 2014-15 school year.

Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, said last week that he had not yet been briefed on the reasons for the recommended penalties. However, he praised ETS for its overall work on all state tests.

“Our assessments have proceeded with almost 4 million children with only minor glitches, so their overall performance has been, I think strong – especially compared to other states – where they’ve had major problems and the whole systems have blown up,” Kirst said. “So, I think we need to look at the overall picture.”

Jim Popham, a UCLA emeritus professor and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said the fine was minimal and not unusual.

“I think if anything it shows diligence on the part of the state Department of Education,” he said. “That amount, quite frankly, is trivial. The fact that they held something back meant they were going through a checklist and making sure ETS did what it was supposed to.”

The Department of Education has met with ETS to resolve errors in the test administration and “ETS has put into action corrections that are intended to ensure success in the future,” according to the staff report. However, the report did not specify the nature of the corrections or include details about how many students, schools or districts were affected by the mistakes.

The ETS contract required that the company send out test results to each district five weeks after the district’s tests have been scored for computer-based testing, or six weeks for paper-and-pencil testing. Districts that do not have the capacity to administer the tests online have the option of giving the students paper test to fill out.  

OverallETS did a better job of returning a majority of scores faster this year than last year.

The state posted school, district and county scores online more quickly this year – on Aug. 24 as opposed to Sept. 8 last year.  But the results were not 100 percent complete. State officials said the results that were reported on Aug. 24 included about 90 percent of students’ scores statewide and that the other 10 percent would be added later.  On Oct. 18, scores for nearly 24,000 more students were added to the online database.

Some districts, county offices of education and charter schools have expressed concerns they did not receive student score reports in the mail until September, and some parents didn’t get them until October.  However, it’s unclear whether this is part of the reason for the ETS fine.

Penny Howard, whose daughter attends an alternative charter school in the El Dorado County of Education, said her daughter took the computer tests last April when she was in the 8th grade, but she didn’t get the report until Oct. 1.  “It’s completely meaningless to her now,” Howard said, “since it’s so far removed from when she took it (the test). ”

When asked about the delays, Department of Education spokesman Peter Tira said ETS generated paper student score reports to be sent to parents in two batches this year. The first batch was created when 90 percent of students in a district in grades 3-8 and 11 completed the tests, he said in an email.

“The second batch is generated when all schools statewide have completed testing and includes straggler tests from students who may not have submitted their test or had a score hold,” he said. “ETS uses this method to ensure that the 10 percent of straggler reports don’t hold up the other 90 percent from being sent out.”  A score would be held if questions were raised about its accuracy or validity.

But Tira said some districts never received the first batch if 90 percent of their students had not completed the tests by the time the testing window ended last spring.  This was the case in El Dorado County Office of Education programs, which runs the school Howard’s daughter attends.

El Dorado County’s school programs didn’t receive student test reports until Sept. 8, said Dave Publicover, executive director of the county’s charter alternative programs. He said his testing administrator was told by the California Department of Education that a small percentage of educational agencies statewide received late scores and reports due to the decision by ETS to wait until 90 percent of students took the tests before sending them out.

“We were pulling our hair out, saying, ‘Where are they?’ because people were looking for them,” Publicover said.

Cupertino Union School District district spokesman Jeremy Nishihara said his district received the bulk of its student score reports in August, followed by a smaller batch in September. “So there was a delay on the ETS side,” he said. “We don’t know why.”

Tira said about 2 percent of all tests taken took longer to process because they were paper-and-pencil tests, but could not say how many students statewide received late score reports.

The entire ETS contract extends from July 2015 through December 2018 and is expected to cost the state nearly $240.4 million. It also includes new science tests still in development and alternative tests for special education students and English learners, as part of the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance, or CAASP.

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