Education

University of Iowa pairs with Pearson on new standardized tests

Vendor originally awarded contract won't sue over law taking it away

Rows of numbered carts are filled with test materials March 21 at Pearson in southwest Cedar Rapids. The University of Iowa has awarded a $19.6 million contract to NCS Pearson to deliver new statewide assessments it has developed. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Rows of numbered carts are filled with test materials March 21 at Pearson in southwest Cedar Rapids. The University of Iowa has awarded a $19.6 million contract to NCS Pearson to deliver new statewide assessments it has developed. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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The University of Iowa has awarded a $19.6 million contract to NCS Pearson to deliver new statewide assessments it has developed to replace the Iowa Assessments in spring 2019.

Pearson — which maintains long-standing offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City — was the only company to submit a bid for the contract, UI Director of Purchasing and Business Services Deborah Zumbach said in a statement. The request for proposals was open from April 26 to May 31, university records show.

Both co-directors of the UI’s Iowa Testing Programs, Steve Dunbar and Catherine Welch, were on a seven-person review committee that evaluated the proposal. The university and Pearson have worked together to administer assessments since the 1950s.

“Our experience with Pearson as a dedicated, Iowa-based company has been one of the sources of success for Iowa Testing Programs and our assessments over many years,” Dunbar said. “Everything we evaluated in their proposal (showed) they view the Iowa program as an extremely high priority in their portfolio.”

Lisa Lepic, Pearson’s senior vice president for business development, said the company is committed to providing service to Iowa “at or just above cost.” The contract is for one year, according to Pearson, with four one-year renewal options.

“We bid very low,” she said. “We have a long history of providing services to the State of Iowa for a very low price.”

While questions on the Iowa Assessments traditionally were multiple choice, Iowa’s new English, math and science tests — named the Statewide Assessments of Student Progress — will evaluate students’ skills with “technology-enhanced questions” as well as open-ended essay questions, Welch said.

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She expects most Iowa districts to opt for an online version of the tests, though a print-version also will be available.

According to the state Department of Education, the new tests will be administered in public school districts in the following subjects and grade levels:

l Math: Grades 3-11

l English-Language Arts, including reading and writing: Grades 3-11

l Science: Grades 5, 8 and 10.

Moving forward, the assessments will undergo an external review for alignment with the Iowa Core, which outlines what students should be learning in classrooms.

Welch said a recent internal alignment study of the assessments showed positive results.

For more than five years, Iowa has been trying to update its standardized assessments — the Iowa Assessments, also developed by the UI — because the tests did not align to the Core.

The university nearly lost the state’s testing contract when state evaluators selected assessments developed by the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes of Research as the best option for Iowa’s new statewide tests.

But during the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill that required the assessments — which are taken by some 360,000 students each academic year — to be developed by the UI.

Before Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the legislation, the state’s award to American Institutes of Research also had been delayed by an administrative legal challenge from Pearson.

Ultimately, the contract award was taken away from the American Institutes of Research and rendered moot the evaluation process.

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Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, the ranking member of the Iowa Senate’s Education Committee, characterized the process as “a sad chapter in the history of Iowa education.”

“The whole process has been a disgrace, deeply disrespectful to the lengthy efforts of those who were asked to analyze and recommend a choice,” Quirmbach said. “And, by our failure to choose a testing instrument whose fidelity to the Iowa Core curriculum has previously been validated, ultimately a dereliction of our duties to the students and teachers whose accomplishments may thus be undervalued.”

Still, in a statement to The Gazette, American Institutes of Research Assessments President Jon Cohen said the nonprofit does not intend to interfere with the state’s award to the UI or the university’s subsequent contract with Pearson.

“We are not planning to take any legal action,” Cohen said. “We extend our good wishes to Iowa’s students and educators and hope that they are well served.”

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

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