Utah Board of Education promises smoother testing this year

SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers met with the Utah Board of Education on Wednesday to discuss how to move forward after a year full of standardized testing issues and glitches.

Over the past few months, the Utah Board of Education terminated its 10-year contract with Questar — the vendor responsible for administering the state’s RISE test.

The issue has called into question the validity of last year's testing, which certain schools rely on to qualify for federal funding.

American Institutes for Research (AIR) will now administer the RISE tests after signing a three-year contract. AIR previously administered standardized testing in Utah for five years before the state switched to Questar.

Darin Nielsen, the assistant superintendent of student learning for the Utah Board of Education, told lawmakers he is confident there will not be any more problems moving forward.

“Our board made what I would consider a courageous and very correct decision to terminate the contract with Questar,” Nielsen said. “Students can expect a much smoother year, this year.”

Nielsen said he was not a member of the Utah Board of Education when it decided to move from AIR to Questar. He explained that the process was very objective. The board did not have issues with AIR, but Questar scored higher on a point scale used to make the decision.

The Utah Board of Education asked all vendors if they had ever been fined in the past for failing to meet the terms of a contract. Nielsen said Questar disclosed that its parent company had been fined, but Questar had not.

“They were fined approximately 15 million dollars by the state of Texas,” Nielsen said. “I’ve heard people talk about — in the media and also in smaller circles — Questar was selected just because it was the cheapest solution and that’s not — that’s not true… cost represents 30 percent of the weight.”

After the Utah Board of Education signed a $44 million contract with Questar, Nielsen became aware of new issues that the vendor had with other states.

“An incident in Tennessee, an incident in New York. It’s important to note, those incidents occurred after that October 2017 date,” Nielsen said. “Questar notified us that morning and informed us that that issue that was in New York would not affect Utah.”

Nielsen said the board became aware of issues with Questar for months prior to the technical glitches that interrupted the last school year’s standardized testing. He said Questar consistently failed to meet deadlines, forcing the Utah Board of Education to meet with Questar’s president at least three times.

During RISE testing, some students were incapable of electronically submitting the first half of their tests so they could move on to the next portion.

“Students would get a spinning wheel — or a ‘pending’ — or an ‘unable to submit,’” Nielsen said. “I think you also saw teachers' frustration start to build.”

After the tests were complete, Nielsen said many students received immediate electronic grades that did not match the printed grade they received the following day in class.

The Utah Board of Education is now looking to recoup thousands of dollars in liquidated damages from Questar due to the vendor’s failure to fulfill its end of the 10-year contract. Nielsen would not disclose the exact dollar figure because of the potential for upcoming litigation.

At this point, it is unclear whether this past year’s test results will be valid. The Utah Board of Education is now waiting for a final report from Questar along with a third-party analysis of the data obtained.

“They responded well, and quickly, all throughout the process, I want you to know that,” said Terry Shoemaker, the executive director of Utah School Boards Association.

Lawmakers said they understood the whole situation has been frustrating for the Utah Board of Education, but they believe officials did the best they could under the circumstances.

“I just appreciate how hard you’ve worked on this,” said State Senator Kathleen Riebe.

“We appreciate your efforts to hold their feet to the fire,” said Representative Steve Waldrip.

Nielsen said the Utah Board of Education hopes to have a full analysis of last year’s testing results by its October board meeting. Then the board will have a better idea of whether the data is reliable enough to keep on the books.

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