Tennessee signs two-year, $40 million testing contract with Pearson

Tennessee has signed a two-year contract worth almost $40 million for British-based Pearson to take over its student testing program beginning July 1, according to documents released on Friday.

The contract runs through June 30, 2021, and the state has the option to renew terms annually for up to three years through 2024. The five-year cost would be $93.1 million, significantly less than the state’s $30 million-a-year agreement with Questar, which has administered the TNReady assessment the last three school years.

The world’s largest and oldest testing company, Pearson was awarded Tennessee’s contract in May and negotiated with state officials for two weeks before both parties signed the agreement on June 14. But the final contract — showing that Pearson has two years to prove itself before the state extends their agreement — was sealed until Friday following reviews and approvals from state finance and treasury officials.

“There weren’t really any sticking points during the negotiations,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told Chalkbeat earlier this week. “What was nice about the process is that we got a competitive bid to start with.”

Pearson’s five-year proposal scored higher and cost $16 million less than the one submitted by Questar, the only other bid considered after a third company’s proposal was thrown out for not meeting the state’s requirements.

Schwinn said Pearson has a “strong track record” for delivering large-scale testing like Tennessee requires; the technical capacity to test online eventually; and processes for returning scores faster to districts than under previous TNReady vendors.

The 88-page Pearson contract covers delivering, administering, and scoring the assessment, as well as reporting the results. The state has a separate agreement with New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service, or ETS, to develop test questions, forms, scoring keys, and guides for TNReady.

Tennessee high school students took their state tests online this year, but Pearson will administer TNReady to all grades using only paper materials in the upcoming school year before older students switch back to computer-based tests in 2020-2021. This spring, Gov. Bill Lee called for the online slowdown at Schwinn’s urging and the legislature ordered one year of paper-only testing to give the state’s next vendor sufficient time to prepare.

Pearson becomes the third company in five years to oversee TNReady in the state’s messy transition to computer-based testing. While the test’s content has been hailed for aligning with Tennessee’s new academic standards, its delivery has been rife with problems since its rollout in 2016. That year, the state fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online platform failed on the very first day of testing. Then a year ago, former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered the search for a new vendor after days of technical glitches under Questar undermined public trust in the reliability of 2018 results.