British testing company Pearson, which will take over Tennessee’s problem-plagued state assessment program, submitted a bid that scored higher and cost less than the proposal by Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.
Pearson officials said it would cost $20.1 million to administer the test known as TNReady for the upcoming school year. The company’s five-year bid came in at $93.1 million, which is $16 million under that of Questar, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.
In addition, Pearson’s overall proposal was scored consistently higher than Questar’s by the committee that examined the two qualifying bids. The 10-member panel was composed of testing experts from across the state.
Pearson is negotiating its contract with Tennessee after being awarded the bid last week through the state’s Department of General Services. Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said she expects both parties to sign off on the deal by June 13, the state’s deadline under its timeline for securing a new testing company.
“I feel very very positive about how the negotiations are going, and I feel optimistic about moving to Pearson,” Schwinn told Chalkbeat on Thursday.
The world’s largest and oldest testing company, Pearson will become the third vendor in five years to administer TNReady in the state’s messy transition to computer-based testing. And it brings a wealth of experience and resources to the table for a large-scale testing program such as in Tennessee, which serves a million students in its public schools. The company does testing work in most every U.S. state and, as part of its proposal, provided positive recommendations from officials in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, and New Jersey.
In seeking proposals to take over TNReady, Tennessee suggested that the annual cost should come in at about $20 million, significantly under the $30 million that Questar was paid this school year.
Three companies submitted proposals, although a bid from AdvanceED Measured Progress was thrown out for not meeting the state’s requirements. According to the documents, the New Hampshire-based vendor did not provide evidence of having administered tests to a minimum of 100,000 students simultaneously.
Pearson’s cost proposal started at $20.1 million the first year, decreasing gradually to reach $17.4 million by the fifth year. The price tag for all five years would be $93.1 million.
Questar’s bid came in at $21.9 million each year, at a total five-year cost of $109.5 million.
In evaluating the proposals based on overall experience, technical merit, and cost, the review committee gave Pearson a score of 90, compared to about 75 for Questar.
Schwinn, who was not on the review committee, said she’s encouraged by the numbers she’s seen and hopeful that any cost savings can go to help local districts with their assessment work. “We’re going after it pretty aggressively,” she said about finding ways to support school systems with testing.
Pearson will administer all tests next school year using paper materials, giving the company more than a year to ramp up for online testing beginning in 2020-21. Paper testing is generally more expensive than online exams, but Schwinn believes that Tennessee has been paying Questar too much for that part of the state’s assessment work.
“If you look at how much we’re paying for paper assessments and you compare it to other states, you will see a noticeable difference,” she said, noting that the cost per paper test in Texas, where she previously worked as chief deputy commissioner, was half of what Tennessee paid Questar.
Tennessee launched its TNReady assessment in 2016, but its simultaneous transition to computer-based testing was rife with problems. North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. was fired after a botched online rollout prompted then-Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most testing that year. Questar took over, but struggled with relatively small problems with online scoring its first year and bigger problems with online administration last year. McQueen then ordered the search for a new vendor to take over this fall.
In seeking bids, Tennessee wanted its next testing company eventually to oversee TNReady both on paper for younger students and online for older ones, plus provide faster return of scores to local districts. It also wanted a stronger computer-based infrastructure that’s independent from systems used for its other testing clients and improved training and customer service, both to prepare testing coordinators for annual tests and to troubleshoot when problems arise.
In evaluating the proposals, the state gave significant weight to the companies’ technical qualifications, experience, and approach — accounting for 60 percent of the total score. Cost was weighted at 30 percent, while general qualifications and experience accounted for 10 percent.
“The rubric reflected our focus on having an excellent administration. That’s our expectation every year with Pearson,” Schwinn said.