Tennessee committee extends, increases Pearson testing contract by $40 million

Decision comes during upheaval over state’s third grade reading law

Staff file photo by Allison Kwesell / Jane Littlejohn distributes the standardized TCAP test in her fifth grade classroom at George R. Stuart Elementary School in Cleveland.
Staff file photo by Allison Kwesell / Jane Littlejohn distributes the standardized TCAP test in her fifth grade classroom at George R. Stuart Elementary School in Cleveland.

Amid uproar over third grade reading scores and the prospect of thousands of failing students, Tennessee lawmakers extended the testing vendor's contract and bumped up the total payout by nearly $40 million.

The legislature's Joint Fiscal Review Committee voted Wednesday to tack on another year for British-based NCS Pearson to administer TNReady and increase the total contract to $132 million from $93 million. The state previously paid $30 million a year to Questar to handle its main K-12 test.

The NCS Pearson contract will expire June 30, 2025, instead of this June. Besides giving the test, the company is to make changes aligning with "paper-based" tests and improve data for instructional use.

The state already was paying NCS Pearson about $143 million through two contracts to handle the test. A Department of Education official told the committee Wednesday the state is working on a new request for proposals combining test administration and a separate contract with NCS Pearson for test development into one future contract award.

This past week, the state lauded results of the Tennessee Comprehensive Achievement Program — the test used to judge the performance of students, teachers, schools and administrators — after 40% of third graders scored well enough to be considered proficient by the state in reading, up from 32% two years ago.

(READ MORE: Nearly a fourth of Hamilton County third graders require reading help under retention law)

Yet the 60% of third graders who aren't reading on grade level by the state's standard could be required to go to summer school, take tutoring in the fourth grade or a combination of both. Otherwise, they could be forced to repeat the third grade.

Critics of the state law, which was approved in a special session two years ago and tweaked this year, have been hammering the Republican-controlled legislature this week, arguing students shouldn't be judged based on part of a score from one test. Opponents of the law also contend it is part of a bigger plan to privatize K-12 education.


State Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, tried to deflect some of the criticism Wednesday when he asked an Education Department official to explain how teachers are involved in every step of the test's development. Teachers are "engaged" at several points in putting together the test, including deciding how students should perform on different parts of the test, the official said. A committee of teachers in each subject area also reviews every item that makes the test.

Rose, a member of the Fiscal Review Committee, said he asked the question "for a purpose" and added there are "a lot of unhappy parents across the state."

"They're pointing fingers at the governor. They're pointing fingers at the legislature, and they're pointing fingers at Pearson, at whoever the commissioner of education's going to be," Rose said. "But the point is teachers have been involved in this ... . And I think that's an important fact for our citizens to know, that teachers have been involved."

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is to be replaced June 1 by Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, who served most recently as vice president of the pro-school choice nonprofit group ExcelinEd.

(READ MORE: Stakes are higher than ever for Tennessee 3rd graders as test scores released)

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said this week he had reviewed the test earlier this year and found the questions to be "spot-on."

"If you couldn't grasp it, it was gonna show you could not read at grade level," he said.

Lundberg said changes to the law this year included extra funding for tutoring in first and second grades.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons, however, contended the third grade retention law is affecting families' summer plans and students' educational futures.

Gov. Bill Lee and Republican leaders ignored the requests of school officials and parents statewide to repeal the measure or change it dramatically, Clemmons said in a statement.

The Nashville Democrat referred to Lee and Schwinn as "anti-public school crusaders and architects of the false 'failing schools' narrative,'" saying they consider the law a "political win" because it undermines trust in public schools.

(READ MORE: How Hamilton County Schools is combating racial disparities in literacy)

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, argued the testing process was mishandled because it put too much emphasis on the end-of-year test without giving teachers and administrators a sample at the beginning of the year showing where students stand academically.

Even if teachers help prepare the test, Bowman said he never knows which ones are involved so his association could vouch for them.

"All we've done is make test manufacturers wealthy," Bowman said. "Maybe we're all in the wrong business."

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.