JACKSON — Senators want more work on a bill that would force the state Department of Education to relaunch a contract competition to pick state standardized tests with rules that would aid the ACT organization.
House and Senate negotiators tacked the language onto House Bill 434, a must-pass bill that transfers money in the budget. Senators sent the bill back for more work after House members passed it Tuesday.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison said he remains opposed to legislative intervention in the department’s process to pick a new testing provider.
“Let’s let them do their job,” Tollison said after senators recommitted the bill.
The Board of Education could vote on a new contract as early as April if lawmakers don’t intervene. State Superintendent Carey Wright has previously balked at legislative intervention, saying the department is trying to be fair. The department has refused to release the names of companies that have bid in the current competition, although Pearson PLC has acknowledged that it is seeking the contract.
Many local school superintendents have supported Iowa-based ACT as Mississippi’s test provider. This year, the state is using a test written by Pearson for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Mississippi was formerly a member of that multistate group.
The bill would require the department to rerun the contract solicitation in time to give tests in the 2015-2016 school year.
Pearson was hired by New Mexico to develop tests for the PARCC consortium, and Mississippi officials sought to adopt the PARCC tests for multiple years last fall. But a Mississippi contract review board said it would reject the contract because officials didn’t consider other vendors.
Mississippi then signed a one year, no-bid $8.4 million emergency contract with Pearson, adopting the tests for this spring only.
That set up a competition to choose a new vendor for future years’ tests.
In a March 6 letter, ACT said it wouldn’t be bidding. The letter, from ACT Assistant Vice President Catherine Dunn, objected to Mississippi’s demands that ACT produce a third-party study showing it’s “completely aligned” to the state’s Common Core standards, that Mississippi review and approve test forms, and that the state be allowed to include customized questions the state would own.
The language in the bill says the department must allow a vendor to offer a pre-existing test and can’t require customization. It says the test can be no longer than five hours and that the department can’t require a third-party evaluation in advance, although it can require a vendor to offer an independent study within a year of signing the contract. ACT has said it’s working on a third-party study but it’s not ready yet. It also includes a number of other very specific requirements.