The Commissioner of Education agreed Monday to a third-party review of the recently released and much delayed FCAT scores after receiving a letter signed by five district  superintendents, representing Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Duval, Broward and Leon counties and urging him to postpone calculating grades and conduct an independent analysis of what they call “significant anomalies.”

After numerous conversations among district-level data research teams, five of Florida’s largest school districts, representing almost 40% of the students in the State, have noted significant anomalies in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) results for the 2009-2010 school year. Given the gravity of the decisions which hang in the balance, we strongly request a thorough review of this data as soon as possible. To this end, we urge access to our collective research and assessment personal, as has occurred in the past when anomalies were suspected.

In his response, Commissioner Eric J. Smith defended the results:

Let me state first and foremost that I have the utmost confidence in the accuracy and reliability of the 2010 FCAT results. Multiple reviews by an independent testing expert, The Buros Institute, in addition to our own internal verification procedures, have all confirmed this fact.

With that said, I take the concerns from our school districts very seriously and as such I have sought out an additional independent third party reviewer to evaluate the statistical viability of this year’s results focusing specifically on this group of students. HumRRO (Human Resource Research Organization) has agreed to conduct this audit and we will publish the results as soon as they are available.

NCS Pearson, the private company contracted to conduct the FCAT tests, told the Board of Education in June that technical issues were to blame for the weeks of delays in releasing scoring results, which are used by schools to file grant applications, to determine class size and teacher placement, and to monitor the schools’ adherence to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.  According to Pearson’s $254 million contract with state, which ends in 2013, the first batch of test scores should have been released in April, and late last month the Department of Education asked the company to pay an initial $3 million in damages associated with the delays.

In a June 8 press release, Smith apologized to students, parents and school administrators for the delay:

The lack of performance by the state’s new testing contractor, NCS Pearson, is absolutely unacceptable, and the delays we have encountered in the reporting of this year’s FCAT results are not indicative of the smooth, expertly managed experience they promised as a part of the contract procurement process.

I am both outraged and frustrated by the situation Pearson has caused and I do not intend to allow these inexcusable delays to go unanswered. In addition to demanding that Pearson ensure all future test administrations are absent of the technology issues we have experienced this year, I also intend to impose significant financial penalties as a result of their failure to meet contract deadlines.

On Tuesday, Lee County became the sixth school district to join the call for an independent investigation.

“My staff and I have been talking with districts across Florida and we all have found some scoring inconsistencies,” said James Browder, superintendent of Lee schools in a press release. “We continue to disaggregate the data to determine the level of these scoring abnormalities.”

Other incidents involving NCS Pearson have made headlines in recent years, including a class-action lawsuit in 2006 where the company and the College Board settled for nearly $3 million after 4,400 students were underscored on the SAT, a claim of $9.5 million this year in Wyoming after an online test administered statewide by Pearson was plagued with glitches, and similar incidents in Arkansas and South Carolina.  The London-based testing company even has a questionable track record in Florida, where 10 years ago, operating as NCS, it delivered test results late and was subsequently fined $4 million.

From the Associated Press:

Nearly all major testing companies have had problems since the federal No Child Left Behind law made standardized testing a national priority, said Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

“Companies over-promise and under-deliver and states, particularly in the last several years because of the fiscal crisis, take the lowest bidder who promises to do the job whether that company’s track record demonstrates that they can do it,” Schaeffer said.

And while standardized tests are used to hold schools, students and educators accountable, “there is absolutely no accountability for the corporations who make those tests,” Schaeffer said.

Letter to DOE Commissioner

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