Utah cancels $44 million contract with school test company

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah's top education officials abruptly canceled a contract with a Minnesota-based standardized testing company amid a flurry of technological glitches that have created uncertainty about whether this year's test scores will be validated.

The Utah State Board of Education voted early Friday morning just after a meeting that stretched past midnight to rescind a 10-year, $44-million contract it signed last year with Questar Assessment Inc., said board spokesman Mark Peterson.

Board chairman Mark Huntsman said in a news release that members didn't want to risk more testing interruptions that schools have experienced this year. He said Questar didn't meet contractual obligations.

The state has paid Questar about $6 million so far and plans to negotiate to recoup some of that based on the problems, Peterson said.

He said state officials likely won't know until August or September if this year's test results are valid to use as part of the state's assessment of teacher and school performances. Some schools will still be taking the tests until June 17, he said.

Questar CEO Brad Baumgartner said in a statement that the company "regrets the decision" but will help with a smooth transition and continue to provide services to the state until a new company is chosen.

The company, based in Apple Valley, Minnesota, also does testing for schools in New York, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and South Dakota, according to the company's website.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported recently that Questar has had problems in the other states, including student data being stolen in New York and Mississippi and students taking the wrong test in Tennessee.

Peterson said none of the companies vying for the contract last year when the state switched vendors came without some history of issues with their technology and that Questar assured Utah officials they had remedies for the problems that came up elsewhere. Peterson pointed out that some of the problems Questar had in other states happened after the board recommended choosing the company.

Questar is responsible for the federally mandated standardized tests, known as RISE tests, that were given to third-eighth grade students. The results are used along with other data and information to help gauge performances by teachers and schools. The results can influence funding, school grading reports that are published online for parents and decisions about struggling schools.

Utah plans to first choose a new company for a short-term contract to handle tests for the next school year while setting out to find a company to give a long-term contract, Huntsman said.

Heidi Matthews, the president of the Utah Education Association, applauded the state school board for acting swiftly to respond to problems. Teachers reported students not being able to record answers mid-test and a host of technological glitches.

"It was a very, very frustrating experience for our teachers and our students this past spring," Matthews said.

She said the association is skeptical the results will be solid enough to be used for the "high stakes" decisions they contribute to but will give the state time to do its assessment.

Matthews said the problems provide an ideal time to step back and reassess why the state is putting so much emphasis on tests that create student anxiety and don't always accurately reflect how much students have learned.

"Why in the world are we putting so much emphasis on these tests when it's a sliver of one day?" Matthews said.

In the Granite School District in the Salt Lake City area, students had tests delayed, the system go offline during tests and a problem with results not being recorded, said district spokesman Ben Horsley. The district is the state's third-largest with 65,000 students and 90 schools.

"When schools and teachers are held accountable for those results and the results are in question that obviously causes some consternation and concern," Horsley said.

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