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State names price of test delay

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2000


The Florida Department of Education has asked the National Computer Systems testing company to pay fines in excess of $4.8-million for delays in delivering test scores.

The fines include not only the delay in getting individual student test scores to school districts, but also delays in other "critical activities," including delivery of overall results to the state.

The $4,804,000 in penalties could be even higher. The contract says the test results must be delivered without errors.

"In the event that errors are discovered, the Department would expect NCS to promptly correct them and reserves the right to access additional liquidated damages because of the errors," the letter by DOE General Counsel Michael Olenick reads in part.

The letter was sent to the lawyer representing NCS, Steven Uhlfelder of Tallahassee, who also is a member of the Florida Board of Regents, as is Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher.

The $69-million, three-year, contract with the Minneapolis-based NCS, included the strongest "liquidated damages" wording ever in a testing contract for the State of Florida, a clear signal that Gallagher considered the timely delivery of the scores to be tremendously important. For instance, the contract called for a payment of $10,000 for a delay of one day, with the dollar amount increasing each day, reaching a high of $250,000 per day after seven days.

There is a $5-million cap on the penalties.

This year's test results were supposed to be delivered by June 2, just before the end of the school year for most school districts. They were to be used to help districts make decisions about whether to retain or promote students to the next grade. The scores also form the basis of the state's accountability system, the school performance grades, and was a crucial factor in determining at which failing schools students would be eligible for private school vouchers.

The job of delivering test scores to school districts was not completed until June 29, more than three weeks after the deadline. Fines are levied for business days only.

"We're trying to resolve the issues as soon as possible," Uhlfelder said Thursday. "This is not an adversarial relationship, a good working relationship." But, Uhlfelder added, "There is an honest difference of opinion about how much is owed and the circumstances surrounding the lateness of the report."

Some school districts decided to spend thousands of dollars to mail test score results home to students. Others decided to hand out scores at the start of next school year.

"Even if it didn't cost some districts a lot of money, it cost them in convenience," said Tom Weightman, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "A lot of people were counting on these test scores. This affected kids."

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