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School districts see conflict of interest in FCAT audit plans

The company charged with auditing the results of this spring's troubled FCAT is no stranger to NCS Pearson, the testing giant in charge of scoring the test.

In fact, it works for Pearson.

Officials from Virginia-based HumRRO confirmed they are currently working as a subcontractor on the $254 million contract to administer the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and have done so since 2000 for about $300,000 a year.

"We don't see it as a conflict of interest," said Suzanne Tsacoumis, vice president for educational assessment. "I can guarantee you we would only say the truth."

But school districts cried foul, saying the arrangement was troubling.

"We absolutely are concerned about that," said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "Our whole purpose in asking for a third-party review is that it's not someone who has an allegiance to anybody."

On Monday she and district leaders from Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval and Leon raised questions about the test results, saying they had fallen statewide by statistically improbable margins.

State Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith said he had full confidence in the results, but agreed to name Human Resources Research Organization to conduct an "independent, third-party" audit.

By Tuesday, additional districts were taking a second look at their scores, which help determine student placement, school grades, and millions of dollars in state funding.

Pinellas testing director Octavio Salcedo said he is seeing the same pattern that other districts have noted, with far more schools failing to get at least 50 percent of their lowest-performing students to make a year's worth of progress.

If those test results stand, officials estimate that 22 elementary schools would be penalized a letter grade for failing to make enough progress among their lowest-performing students, compared to three schools last year.

"That's huge for us," said Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen.

Districts also have complained about test delays, which have so far earned Pearson at least $3 million in state fines.

But Elia said she hadn't been familiar with its partner, HumRRO, until she heard about a conference call in which districts were complaining about its relationship with Pearson.

"I had never heard of the company before," she said. "But I think it's really important that (the auditor) be someone who's not been a player before, and they can come in with brand new eyes."

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said the state should immediately replace the company.

"Being listed as an official Pearson 'partner' in designing the FCAT should automatically disqualify HumRRO as a potential 'independent auditor' of problems with the test," he said in an e-mail.

State officials said they saw no problem with the company's role.

HumRRO provided independent analysis of the test's design and the difficulty of questions, and reported its results directly to the Department of Education, said spokesman Tom Butler. The whole process was also evaluated by another group, The Buros Institute at the University of Nebraska.

"Therefore, they are not influenced by Pearson or under its control, as a traditional subcontractor might be," he said.

Still, out of a desire to make the process fully accurate and transparent, he said, the Education Department might seek yet another auditor of this spring's FCAT.

"I am told we are working on securing an additional review by yet another independent source," Butler said.

Times staff writers Ron Matus and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

FCAT by the numbers

1998: First year the test was administered.

1.76 million: Number of public school students in Grades 3-11 who took the 2009 FCAT.

$254 million: Pearson's contract with the state Department of Education.

$3 million: Amount the department has fined Pearson so far after results were weeks late.

Source: Florida Department of Education

School districts see conflict of interest in FCAT audit plans 07/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 8:32am]

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