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School testing companies score it big

Assessing achievement has grown into a lucrative business. But crunching so many tests can lead to criticism, mistakes and delays.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2000


Florida's move toward increased school accountability has fostered a lot of debate between lawmakers and educators over whether more testing leads to smarter kids.

The two sides agree on one clear winner, though: the testing companies.

Calls for more precise measurements of school performance -- in Florida, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and across the nation -- inevitably lead to more testing. And that means states are willing to pay testing companies millions of dollars to write, score, interpret and deliver all those results.

What once was a quiet, though productive, niche has exploded into a booming and lucrative industry.

"They all see this back-to-basics, educational standards movement as a gold mine -- and it is," said Gail Kalinoski, managing editor of the Educational Marketer, a trade publication that monitors the education publishing market.

How big a business is school testing? Nearly all of the states have an annual statewide test for assessing student achievement. Most of them rely on and pay an outside testing company.

Florida, which may release test results today, is relying on National Computer Systems out of Minneapolis. In 1996, the company reported $300-million in revenue. That figure more than doubled this year to $629-million, a figured boosted by the Florida contract, $69-million for three years, or $122-million for five years.

Now though, along with the rewards of multimillion-dollar contracts and seemingly endless demand, testing companies have to deal with a sometimes harsh spotlight. They handle a mind-boggling volume of data, and most of the time they get it right.

But when they make mistakes or run into delays, as has happened in Florida, it's big news. That's what happens when tests become so important they drive student promotion decisions, decide how money is spent and are anxiously anticipated by lawmakers, teachers, parents and kids.

"When the test results are announced each year, it makes the front-page headline," said David Smith, a former teacher who is now president of assessment and testing for NCS. "So if the testing company messes up, no matter how small it is in terms of a percentage, to that community it is a big deal and you made a big mistake."

A growing market

In his recent letter to shareholders, NCS chairman Russ Gullotti sounded downright giddy.

"NCS is on a roll!" Gullotti wrote. "In K-12 education, the trend toward increased accountability continues unabated. Thus, our testing businesses continue to grow rapidly."

Gullotti has plenty of reason to be happy.

Along with the sizable Florida contract it landed last year, the company won the Texas contract this year. It's worth $233-million over five years. (They'll also handle 1-million Census forms per day for 99 days this year).

The company had 3,500 permanent employees just 18 months ago. Now it employs 5,000. That doesn't even include the 6,000 to 7,000 temporary workers hired for the busy spring test-scoring season.

NCS, which derives about 75 percent of its revenue from the testing business, isn't even the big fish in the educational assessment pond. Two or three other companies historically have been bigger, though it's difficult to quantify their testing revenue separately because they also are book and test publishers.

Industry analysts say that Harcourt, CTB-McGraw Hill and Riverside Publishing have been the big three in test publishing for years. NCS, a 4-decades-old company, is becoming a bigger player in a growing market.

High-tech tests lead to glitches

There's a reason that the fill-in-the-bubble test and trusty No. 2 pencils have become such a cliche. For years that's what large-scale testing was. Since the late 1930s, educators have relied on these multiple choice tests that could be mechanically scored quickly and accurately.

For much of its history, that's what NCS did.

"If you ever took one of those fill-in-the-bubble tests, we probably scored it," said Maggie Knack, director of investor relations for NCS. "We probably sold the pencil as well."

In the 1990s though, states like Florida designed tests that combined multiple choice with questions that demanded students show their stuff with handwritten essays, graphs, and show-your-work math problems. As large-scale testing evolved, so did test scoring; now it is both high-tech and labor intensive.

Instead of only relying on machines to "read" pencil marks on an answer sheet, testing companies rely on trained scorers who read essays and answer sheets.

That makes it necessary for companies like NCS to hire and train temporary employees to read and score essays. It takes more time and money than the old fill-in-the-bubble scoring. (Florida's testing director estimated that NCS will have to do 23-million "reads" for Florida's tests. That includes at least two reads per essay.)

Sometimes companies have trouble finding enough qualified readers.

"One of the challenges with the Florida test was that the test scoring standards are very high," said Smith, NCS's president of testing. "That's good that they had high standards. But we had to find people who would meet those standards."

Potential readers had to prove their accuracy and efficiency before they got the job for $10, maybe $14, an hour. Smith said the company establishes scoring centers in cities where they might find the perfect readers: "highly educated people who are underemployed."

"The problem we had in this short time frame was finding enough scorers," said Smith, a former teacher. "We were doing back flips to try to hire more people."

The result is that Florida's test scores are more than two weeks late.

The consequences include frustration among educators and lawmakers, a loss of public confidence about the test and significant penalties to be paid by NCS in the form of liquidated damages.

NCS isn't alone in suffering through glitches or delays. Last year, thousands of New York children attended summer school unnecessarily because of scoring errors by CTB/McGraw Hill. In Tennessee, CTB erroneously reported national rankings for students, resulting in unnecessary retentions and summer school. The corrected rankings were late.

Testing officials point out that the problems are small in number, though the impact can be large. Some believe these glitches signal something.

"I think these glitches are just symptoms of a larger problem; we're too dependent on these tests," said Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. "We can use these tests to make big decisions about our children and our schools, but we can't even get the scores back on time or accurately?"

George Madaus, director of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policies at Boston College, said he expects the nation's appetite for testing, and the prospects for a booming testing market, to continue.

"Given the political climate, it's futile to argue against testing," said Madaus, who is documenting errors by testing companies. "Test information is useful.

"My concern is that a lot of people are treating the tests as infallible," he said. "We've seen enough to know that they're not."

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