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FCAT exam producer comes under fire

In a blistering phone call with Florida’s top education official Thursday, several lawmakers questioned whether the results of this year’s FCAT could be trusted and why the state would award the $254 million contract to administer and grade the test to a company with a long history of problems.

State Education Commissioner Eric Smith assured them the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results would be accurate — and that a low bid and superior proposal made NCS Pearson the best company for the job.

During the conference call with state senators, Smith said Pearson had faced “extraordinary difficulties” in matching the test results to each child’s individual demographic information.

“All of our indications are that the actual scoring of the test has been done in a good fashion,” the education commissioner said. “They are results that we think are accurate.”

Still, the lawmakers and policy analysts had questions.

“Do you mean that African-American students are coded as white and eighth-graders are coded as ninth-graders? Dade students are coded as Okaloosa?” asked state Sen. Don Gaetz, a Destin Republican.

Smith said the problem data included race, school and age, but said the company was working to resolve the issues.

“How do we know the academic results are for sure accurate if the demographic data is all screwed up?” asked Ken Winker, an analyst with the Florida Senate Democratic Office.

Kris Ellington, who oversees K-12 assessment for the state Department of Education, said state officials go back to the actual tests to make sure the right score was matched to the right child.

Additionally, the department has a contract with a third-party auditor, Buros Institute, to provide independent oversight, Smith said.

Later, state lawmakers questioned Smith on the process by which Pearson was awarded the $254 million contract.

“Why would we go with a company that has a bad history?” asked State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

Smith’s response: “They had nothing that would have disqualified them as a legitimate contractor for this service.”

But Pearson had high-profile problems scoring the SAT in 2006 and was blamed for delays related to scoring tests in Arkansas in 2009 and South Carolina in 2008.

Since securing the Florida contract in 2009, Pearson has also had trouble with an online test in Wyoming; that state is claiming $9.5 million in damages.

The company even has a spotty record in Florida, where 10 years ago, operating as NCS, it agreed to pay $4 million in fines after delivering test results late.

“Maybe we need to give the department a Google function,” said Miami Beach state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat who is running for attorney general.

This year, Pearson is running weeks behind schedule releasing FCAT results and again faces millions of dollars in fines.

While some scores have been released to students, the majority are not expected out until the end of June — a full month later than last year. Education officials are hoping to release the grades for elementary and middle schools in July.

Under the contract, which was awarded in June 2009 and runs through Nov. 2013, Pearson could have to pay the state as much as $250,000 for each day it misses a critical deadline. The penalty cannot exceed $25 million.

Testing pitfalls

Most major testing companies have run into pitfalls since the federal No Child Left Behind law pushed states to rely more heavily on standardized tests.

During the bid process, the two companies who sought the Florida contract, Pearson and CTB McGraw-Hill, each revealed problems they had encountered under previous contracts. Those past issues were considered by evaluators, according to the education department.

The bid from McGraw-Hill, which held the previous contract, was nearly $200 million more than the Pearson bid, Smith said.

“Pearson came in with a proposal and a cost structure that we were able to work with,” he said.

“Pearson is one of the nation’s largest test producers . . . They do have a long history in test development and test administration.”

Still, Smith made it clear he wasn’t excusing the testing company.

“They knew exactly what they were bidding on,” he said. “They sought this contract. They knew the scope of work. They are a company that has extraordinary experience ... They should have gone into this with their eyes wide open.”

Not enough

It wasn’t enough for elected officials like Gelber, who are calling for a full investigation.

“Somebody ought to really ask the hard questions because the public really would like to know how we got to this point other than they hit a button and it didn’t match up and now we’re out of luck,” he said.

Members of the state Board of Education will hear from Pearson’s president at a previously scheduled meeting in Orlando on Tuesday. Board members are expected to discuss the contract and delays — even though they do not vote on contracts.

“That would be micromanaging,” Board Chairman T. Willard Fair said.

“This is a multibillion-dollar corporation. We have to rely upon the CEO. Just imagine what would happen if we as a board got caught up in making that kind of selection.”

State education officials said the contractor was chosen by a three-person evaluation team.

Board member John Padget, a former Monroe County superintendent, said he still has questions about the contract and the process by which it was awarded.

“I think we should certainly revisit it and find out what happened,” Padget said.

“Maybe our processes need to be reexamined.”