By Len Lazarick, Marylandreporter.com
The often contentious implementation of the new Common Core curriculum standards in Maryland public schools stirred wrangling again among top state officials Wednesday.
The Board of Public Works, comprised of the governor, state treasurer and comptroller, was being asked to approve a nearly $60 million state contract for development of computerized testing for the new standards in English and math. The contract had only one bidder over the protests of another testing company.
Comptroller Peter Franchot protested what he saw as a lack of real competition and the failure of Maryland to take part in the negotiations on a prices that were conducted by the state of New Mexico.
“How do we know we’re getting the best price?” Franchot asked state schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery. “I am stunned that are we are so casual in this bidding process.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp ultimately approved the contract, with Franchot “emphatically voting no.” Franchot also objected to what he sees as excessive testing of public school students and the “teaching to the test.”
Contract lowers costs, school officials say
Lowery kept pointing out that the cost of new computerized tests would be 25 percent lower than the cost of current standardized tests. Those tests, the Maryland School Assessments, are being replaced by the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessments.
The board was being asked to approve the $59,574,623 four-year contract retroactively, two months after it went into effect, in order to take advantage of the price negotiated by New Mexico.
According to the BPW agenda, the contractor, NCS Pearson Inc. of Iowa City, Iowa, will “provide a complete assessment system including test development; assessment administration; psychometric services; reporting; standard setting; and program management to [the Maryland State Department of Education] in English and math in grades 3-8 and algebra and English for high school students.”
“These K-12 assessments will build a pathway to college and career readiness by the end of high school, mark students’ progress toward this goal from grade three through high school, and provide teachers with timely information to inform instruction and provide student support,” education officials told the board.
The tests will ultimately be used as part of teacher evaluations as well.
Maryland took over the fiscal administration of the federal funds for the development of the PARCC tests in December after Florida’s governor stopped his state from participating in the project. However, Maryland taxpayers are footing the full bill for the contract approved Wednesday.
Contract required use of one company’s testing software
The principal bone of contention over the new contract was the request for proposal (RFP) put out by New Mexico as the agent for a 12-state consortium that includes Maryland. The RFP specified that any contractor must use Pearson’s proprietary testing software for at least the first year.
Pearson was already the lead contractor in developing PARCC tests and was supposed to develop “open-source” software that other contractors could easily adapt, but it was unable to develop that software in time.
The American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, D.C. protested New Mexico’s RFP in December, saying the requirement to use Pearson’s software gave the incumbent contractor an unfair advantage in bidding.
AIR declined to bid on the contract and eventually filed suit against the contract award in New Mexico. That lawsuit has yet to be decided. The lawsuit is one of the reasons Maryland school officials delayed getting the Board of Public Works to approve the contract.
Responding to Franchot’s complaints, O’Malley said, “There many instances where people don’t respond to the bids and then come in the back door and say, ‘Golly, we would have responded if only we had terms more favorable to us or if you weren’t asking so much of us.’ “