The global education company Pearson has landed a major contract to administer tests aligned to the common-core standards, a project described as being of "unprecedented scale" in the U.S. testing arena by one official who helped negotiate it.
The decision to award the contract, announced Friday, was made by a group of states developing tests linked to the common core for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two main consortia of states creating exams to match the standards.
Pearson is expected to perform a broad range of duties under the contract, including development of test items, delivery of paper-and-pencil and computerized test forms, reporting of results, analysis of scores, and working with states to develop "cut scores," or performance standards for the exams.
While a number of companies inquired in response to PARCC's request for proposals for the project, ultimately Pearson was the only bidder, said James Mason, who helped negotiate the contract as part of a team of PARCC state leaders.
In an interview with Education Week, Mason said he could not provide a dollar figure for the contract, because the pricetag will depend on how many students and states end up participating, and whether they choose computerized or paper-and-pencil tests, among other factors.
But he described the contract with Pearson as one of "unprecedented scale, in terms of states coming together. It's a pretty significant event in a number of ways."
One aspect of the deal with Pearson that is sure to get attention is the PARCC states' prediction that it will result in an assessment price of about $24 per student. That's down from a previous estimate of $29.50. (See the post on Curriculum Matters by my colleague and common-core authority Catherine Gewertz for a more detailed look at the pricing issues and implications.)
While a number of companies initially inquired about bidding for the contract, in the end Pearson was the only one to bid, Mason said. Despite that, PARCC state officials are convinced the process was sound and resulted in the best vendor getting hired, Mason said. The list of experienced subcontractors secured by Pearson, who include ETS, WestEd, Caveon, and Measured Progress, also gave PARCC state officials confidence, the Mississippi official added.
"PARCC states wanted to ensure we got the best assessment at the best price possible," said Christopher A. Koch, superintendent of education in Illinois, another PARCC state, in a statement. "By working together, we were able to get an innovative and high-quality assessment development and drive down costs for all states."
Pearson has a worldwide footprint in education. The company says it operates in 70 countries, though 60 percent of its sales are in North America, and in the United States it is major player not just in assessment, but in curriculum, technology, publishing, and other areas.
The $24-per-student price was reached after "very aggressive negotiating" between PARCC state officials and Pearson, a back-and-forth that lasted weeks, he said. He attributed the lower-than-previously-estimated per-student cost partly to economies of scale that can be achieved through having large numbers of states and students participating at once.
Mason also noted that other education companies had myriad opportunities to make bids, but chose not to do so.
"Everybody in the industry knew this was coming for years," Mason said of PARCC's RFP for testing. Giving the process more time "would not have resulted in anything different."
Gauging the total cost of the contract is not as simple as it is for a state charged with negotiating with a vendor, in which the state and vendor agree "we'll do it for X million," said Mason. By contrast, figuring out the costs for multiple states in PARCC will depend on what they choose from an "a la carte" menu of testing options, he said.
The PARCC states to date have had three contracts with Pearson, according to the consortium. One of those contracts calls for the London- and New York-based company, along with ETS, to do test-item development during year one of the common core, which includes the process of extensive field-testing underway in the states this year.