NJ Extends Contract to Keep High School Tests for Two More Years

John Mooney | October 10, 2012 | Education
Switch to new assessments scheduled to begin in 2015

While New Jersey moves toward a new school testing system in 2015, it is staying with a North Carolina-based company to conduct two more years of the state’s decade-old high school exit exam and its alternative test.

The state Department of Education yesterday released documentation of its contract extension with Measurement Inc. that will have the company continue the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) through this school year and next, as well as the Alternative High School Assessment and the final years of the state’s biology test.

The total cost of the extension is $19.5 million over two and a half years, including some makeup testing in 2015. It also includes beefed up test security and cheating analysis that has become commonplace with such contracts.

The retention of Measurement Inc., finalized this summer, continues the company’s long-running relationship as the state Department of Education’s chief assessment vendor, earning the company more than $100 million in state contracts in the last five years.

Also administering the state’s elementary and middle school tests, the company in fiscal 2011 earned a total of more than $25 million from New Jersey, according to the most recent data from the state’s treasurer’s office.

That will end in three years as New Jersey is slated to move to a multi-state testing system known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) in 2014-15. PARCC is a consortium of two dozen states that are devising computer-based exams in language arts and math, from third through 11th grades. The tests will be administered up to four times a year.

Whether and how those new high school tests will be required for graduation continues to be under consideration, state officials said, with various options being discussed. Among them would be requiring students to pass a majority of the tests or to pass just the 11th grade exams, they said.

Whatever the decision, state officials have said the requirement will not take effect until 2016, when the current fifth-graders reach high school.

Current state law requires a high school exit exam to be administered in 11th grade, but state officials and legislators have acknowledged the law may need to be changed to accommodate the new testing.

Once PARCC begins, the state is also expected to do away with the alternative assessment that currently provides students who failed any section of the HSPA with a different measure for showing their aptitude and skills.

A task force report looking at high school graduation requirements recommended last spring that the AHSA be terminated, instead using more targeted instruction to help students master the skills needed to pass PARCC exams. State officials reiterated yesterday that they plan to accept the task force’s recommendations, although details of how that new system will work remains uncertain.

In the meantime, current 10th- and 11th-graders will continue to take Measurement Inc.’s HSPA test, which more than million New Jersey high school students have taken before them, and will still have the safety net of the AHSA if they fall short.

State officials said Measurement Inc. would make no changes to the HSPA in the next two years to transition to the new testing and the Common Core State Standards from which they are devised.

The Measurement Inc. contract extension was approved in June without a public bidding process, due to its long-running history in developing and administering the exam, state officials said. Measurement Inc. has been operating on extensions since 2007, when its original contract expired.

“These services will allow the department to ensure the continuity of these state and federally mandated high school assessments,” read the department’s proposal for a waiver from public bidding requirements.

The waiver said the state did seek price quotes from specified vendors, including the Education Testing Service and NCS Pearson Inc., both previous testing vendors for New Jersey. It received one back from Pearson for an additional $4 million, the waiver read.

The waiver also listed a formal department complaint against Measurement Inc. in 2011, regarding “poor contract performance and unsatisfactory service.” A department spokeswoman, Barbara Morgan, said yesterday it was related to problems in the delivery of test booklets and other supplies, and it was subsequently resolved.

The scope of work for the extension details the requirements of the contract, down to the number of testing booklets delivered and the extent of data reports on each student.

The biggest price point is the spring administration of the HSPA to an estimated 105,000 students, costing $5.4 million each time, or roughly $50 per student. The retesting in the fall and spring cost $840,000 and $1.3 million, respectively.

The contract also includes a contingency of one additional year of the full HSPA in the spring of 2015, if PARCC is not ready.

The biology tests costs $870,000 a year, according to the contract, almost half of that for the scoring of the test. The test is designed to have students complete written performance tasks using skills and knowledge they learned in biology class. The test is given at the end of the course, and is currently not a graduation requirement. Last year, fewer than 60 percent of New Jersey biology students passed the test.

The Alternative High School Assessment costs just shy of $500,000 a year, including the per diem costs of $200-$450 per day for 200 scorers.

Additional security included in the contract costs about $175,000 over the three years, more than half for new monitoring called “erasure analysis” that scans answer sheets for anomalies in answers changed from wrong to right. Measurement Inc. has begin such analysis of existing testing, and its findings have led to further investigations in dozens of schools.