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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Is testing giant Pearson about to be investigated in Florida?

From te Miami Herald

By Laura Isensee and Kathleen McGrory In 2009,

Florida’s education commissioner went to Helsinki to meet with education officials from Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Kingdom and other countries for a 10-day summit on Finland’s lauded education system.

Commissioner Eric Smith traveled at the expense of the Pearson Foundation — the nonprofit arm of the testing company that holds a $250 million contract with state’s Department of Education.

On Monday, state Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, called for the Florida Legislature to open an inquiry into the state’s relationship with Pearson. “If the contract comes up again, and there is someone who can do it better and cheaper, and we put it out for a bidding process, trips to Helsinki seem to be a nice incentive to keep doing business with the company,” Bullard said. “I want to make sure Florida is getting the best bang for their tax dollars.”A recent series of stories by

The New York Times reported how the Pearson Foundation has funded trips for education commissioners whose states contract with the testing company. The reports raised issues about Pearson using its foundation to promote its business interests and possible ethical violations by state officials.

Smith told The Miami Herald he asked and received approval from the department’s chief counsel before he went on the trip. “I wanted to make sure it was OK,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”

In an email, Pearson Foundation spokesman Jason Booth said the nonprofit doesn’t directly pay for the officials — it provides a grant to the Council of Chief State School Officers, another nonprofit that selects participants.

“The purpose of the summits is to consider factors leading to top-flight international performance in teacher quality and educational support systems. The summits are not designed to win contracts for Pearson, and no contract was won as a result of the summits,” Booth said. “Pearson Foundation is not aware of any state tax dollars used for the Helsinki or any other trip.”

He added that the foundation is proud of its sponsorship of the international education summits.

The trip to Helsinki proved “incredibly useful,” Smith told The Miami Herald. Smith left the commissioner’s seat in June. “We really had a chance to look at the performance of different nations on various measures,” he said.

No other state education officials have traveled on Pearson’s dime, said DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters. Nor does Florida’s new education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, plan to go on any trips financed by Pearson Foundation.

NCS Pearson holds the contract to administer and score the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests through 2013.The company came under fire last year after botching the annual release of FCAT scores.Pearson executives said the company fell weeks behind in releasing student scores because it had trouble meshing its databases with the state’s databases.

Still, local school administrators complained that the delays made it difficult to prepare for the 2010-11 school year — and cost the school districts millions of dollars.When the scores finally were released weeks behind schedule, more than half of the state’s school districts reported irregularities with their data. Pearson later paid the state more than $15 million in fines.

At one point, Smith defended a decision to hire the testing company, saying a low bid and superior proposal had made Pearson the best company for the job.

But Smith also blasted Pearson in a statement, writing: “I am both outraged and frustrated by the situation Pearson has caused, and I do not intend to allow these inexcusable delays to go unanswered.”

Florida Board of Education Vice Chairman Roberto Martinez said he has “complete trust” in Smith and remembered hearing the Helsinki forum was useful.“I’m not aware of any iota of favorable treatment allotted to Pearson by Dr. Smith or the Board of Education or anyone related to the department,” Martinez said.

Martinez said Pearson faced tough scrutiny from state officials for delays in test scores at meetings and on a conference call with Smith.

“They were not let off the hook. If anything, their feet were held to the fire,” he said.Over the last decade, Pearson — a London-based corporation that also owns The Financial Times and Penguin Books — has developed a huge footprint in the testing industry, said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, which opposes standardized testing. “But in the course of this extremely rapid growth, the company has developed a track record that is the worst in the industry,” he said.

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