Education

New statewide assessment tests for Iowa students still uncertain after ruling

Judge says state was fair to award testing contract to D.C.-based vendor, but legislation would require it stay at UI

It’s still unclear which statewide assessments students will take next school year, despite an administrative law judge’s decision last week that the Iowa Department of Education followed correct procedures in awarding a testing contract to Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes of Research.

House legislation — slated for debate Tuesday — could render moot the monthslong process that led to AIR’s winning proposal.

House File 2235 would require the contract to develop standardized tests for Iowa K-12 students to go to testing services at the University of Iowa.

The bill “came out of frustration,” said House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls. “Let’s just pick one and move forward. Iowa testing services have told me they have a test that’s aligned, and when the (request for proposals) was issued, they were fairly close.”

Iowa testing services did not submit its own proposal during the Department of Education’s bidding process, which led to AIR’s winning proposal, but Rogers said a bid submitted by Pearson represented a bid from Iowa testing services.

After Pearson’s proposal lost to AIR’s in September, Pearson challenged the state’s decision and said in an appeal that its proposal was victim to “preferential treatment and bias.”

A Feb. 14 decision on the issue called Pearson’s complaints “without merit.”

“The record in this case establishes that this process was sufficiently fair, open and objective,” Judge David Lindgren wrote in his decision.

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The decision still needs to be accepted by the Department of Administrative Services, which oversaw the bidding process for the testing contract on behalf of the Iowa Department of Education.

“We appreciate that the judge’s decision reinforces that the state ran a fair process to select a state assessment,” Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said.

But the state’s testing contract with AIR still is on hold, she said.

“We’re not totally clear on an implementation timeline until the assessment issue is decided,” Hupp said.

Despite last week’s decision, Rogers said there are “still questions within our committee” about whether the bidding process was fair.

When Pearson challenged the contract decision, it accused the state of making changes to submitted bids that ultimately changed the outcome of the bidding process.

But the ruling Tuesday found that changes were made to correct an error made by Pearson.

“There is no evidence that the choice to exclude the costs in Line 165 was underhanded or a subterfuge to elevate a lower-scoring but more desirable bidder to the top,” Judge Lindgren wrote.

Still, Rogers said concerns remain over the price of AIR’s proposal. The assessments would cost about $31 million over five and a half years.

That is about $11 million more than the cost of Iowa testing services’ next generation of the Iowa Assessments, which are the tests now used by Iowa schools, Rogers said.

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“Schools are unhappy with the current test because they are saying it’s not aligned to the Iowa Core,” said Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville. “So there’s been a push for a number of years to get a test aligned to the Iowa Core.”

The next generation of Iowa Assessments promises to better align with what students are learning in the classroom, a UI spokeswoman said.

“Iowa testing programs is an internationally recognized leader in assessments and has been providing Iowa with outstanding and affordable tests for 85 years,” spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said in an email. “If this bill passes, Iowa testing programs will be pleased to continue to provide affordable testing that is fully aligned to the Iowa Core.”

Although Rogers said the motivation behind his committee’s legislation was a desire to bring an end to years of questions about Iowa’s assessments, AIR Assessments President Jon Cohen questioned Pearson’s involvement.

“That (legislation) would effectively give them the contract, despite the competition. I hope that doesn’t happen,” Cohen said. “ ... We don’t hire bunches of lobbyists to go into legislatures. Some of our competitors do, and it usually doesn’t work because public servants are usually better than that.”

Rogers denied Pearson lobbyists helped write the bill.

On Monday, Pearson spokesman Scott Overland said the company is “disappointed” in last week’s ruling. He also pointed to an October statement that said the company was “surprised to learn the state intends to award the contract to an out-of-state organization.”

“It’s always beneficial if you’re a state to be spending your money in the state,” AIR’s Cohen said. “But if the folks in the state can’t provide the product you want, then it’s not worth it, right? ... And when I say in-state, it’s Pearson, which is a British firm.”

An AIR test proposal came out ahead of a proposal from Pearson — which has offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City — based on legislation last year that laid out criteria for bids, including the test’s costs, alignment to core standards and ability to measure student growth.

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Rogers said in hindsight, he wishes he “would have made more clear that the cost of this is pretty important” in the bidding criteria.

“I’m confident the Iowa testing services will be aligned to the Iowa Core here in Iowa, it’s housed in the University of Iowa, it’s jobs for Iowans,” Rogers said. “I think most Iowans are comfortable with the tests being placed with the Iowa testing services.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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