A lot can change in two years.
In 2014, Tennessee didn’t choose Questar to create its standardized tests in part because of the company’s lack of experience. This week, the education department announced it was awarding the company a contract worth up to $150 million.
The relatively quick reappraisal has some worried. Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Tennessee Democrat and social studies teacher in Warren County, challenged the company’s readiness at a press conference called Thursday to raise questions about the state’s choice.
“Questar has a history of coming in 2nd place — hired only when others fail,” Dunlap wrote in a handout distributed at the event.
In fact, Questar was New York’s top choice in 2015 when its previous contract with testing giant Pearson expired. And while Mississippi hired Questar to replace a different testmaker, the move was because state officials no longer wanted to share a test with other states, not because the existing tests failed.
But the upstart company was indeed Tennessee’s second choice in 2014, when the state gave a $108 million contract to Measurement Incorporated.
Then, Questar and another company, McGraw-Hill, both received a score of 75.89 out of 100 in the state’s vendor hiring process, far behind Measurement Inc.’s 89.80. Questar got lower marks than Measurement Inc. in every category, from past experience to technical qualifications to in-person interviews with company heads. Measurement Inc. also promised a speedier timeframe, a lower price tag, and the online exams that state officials wanted.
Now, state education officials say they are confident that the fast-growing testing company can deliver — even though the timeline and scope are more ambitious than what Questar has handled before.
Tennessee’s ask of Questar is more ambitious than Mississippi’s or New York’s: In addition to math and English tests for grades 3-8, Questar is also creating end-of-course exams for high school students.
And the timeline Questar is racing against — high school tests must be ready in November — is considerably tighter than the eight months the company had to develop Mississippi’s test and just a small percentage of the time it told Tennessee it would need in 2014. In its application then, the company asked for almost two years to develop Tennessee’s assessments.
But Tennessee is making the job easier by slowing the transition to online testing. And Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told reporters Wednesday that she was heartened by Questar’s history of rising to the occasion when states need a new test in a pinch.
The only significant snafu associated with the company’s tests so far was a technical glitch in Mississippi this spring that delayed testing by 20 minutes.
“Questar has recent experience developing a large-scale test thoughtfully and urgently,” McQueen said.
And Dunlap said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Questar’s low score from the state in 2014 does not portend problems with its exams this fall.
“I do think Commissioner McQueen is working very, very hard … so this can be successful for our students,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Questar will create Tennessee’s science and social studies assessments. Those assessments will in fact be developed by Educational Testing Service (ETS).