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Florida says it's likely to exact penalties for late FCAT scores

The company contracted by the state to administer the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test may be on the hook for millions of dollars in damages for this year's scoring delays.

The 2009 contract between NCS Pearson and the Florida Department of Education requires the company to pay escalating penalties for results deemed "extremely critical," including the results of the reading and math tests in grades 4-10 and the science tests given to grades 5, 8 and 11.

Some of those results were due May 19, according to the contract. The financial hit rises to $250,000 a day beginning on the seventh business day they're late.

"There's a very high possibility that we're going to exercise our rights under that section," DOE spokesman Tom Butler said Monday.

A powerful state senator took it up a notch. "If it was up to me, I'd fire 'em … and make them famous with other states," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former Okaloosa County superintendent who sits on the Senate K-12 Education Policy Committee.

Pearson did not respond to requests for comment. Its $254 million contract ends in November 2013.

State K-12 Chancellor Frances Haithcock told superintendents Friday night that many FCAT results are likely to be delayed until the end of June — a month behind schedule — because of problems with Pearson's "database technology."

Haithcock said there are no problems with accuracy. And the delay does not affect third-graders or high school seniors, who are at risk of retention or not graduating, respectively, based on FCAT results.

But there's little doubt that the delay will further mar Florida's test-heavy accountability system, never popular with parents or teachers, and cause headaches for some school districts.

Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen described her reaction as "pretty frustrated."

In Pinellas, FCAT scores are the linchpin in a series of intertwined decisions on everything from scheduling to professional development. Which students need remedial help? How many remedial classes are needed? Which teachers must be moved? How to fix school improvement plans?

Janssen said the delay is also likely to force the district to make decisions about the principals at D-rated Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins high schools before it has the data it wanted. Those schools are coming under more state scrutiny in the fall. But whether leadership changes were needed was supposed to hinge on whether FCAT scores showed gains.

"I can't wait until the end of the month to move forward on making plans for the fall," Janssen said.

In Hillsborough, the delays probably won't cause major disruptions, said assistant superintendent Lewis Brinson.

Principals and administrators normally like to analyze student data in June, make changes if necessary, and then take a few weeks off before the next school year starts, he said. The delays will "probably cause some people to rearrange their vacations."

It's possible there might be longer lines at guidance counselors' offices in August, if FCAT scores force some students to change schedules. But he predicted there wouldn't be major staffing changes unless a school's performance changed dramatically.

"It's an inconvenience, but we'll get over it," he said.

The state is also seeing a long delay in FCAT writing scores, usually the first released. But it's unclear how much Pearson may be liable, because of a state decision to reduce the number of graders this year from two to one.

Gaetz, said Pearson should pay for its mistakes. But he said it's tough to put a price on lost time.

"Even if we make them pay a big penalty," he said, "it doesn't help that kid or that teacher who would have been able to use the month of June in an effective way."

Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report.

Florida says it's likely to exact penalties for late FCAT scores 06/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 2:02am]

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