SALT LAKE CITY — The State School Board voted early Friday to terminate its $30 million contract with RISE testing vendor Questar Assessment Inc. after technical issues and other problems that have plagued the statewide testing program.
Shortly after midnight Thursday, the Utah State Board of Education voted to end the contract and directed its staff to pursue a short-term contract with another assessment provider.
Short term will likely mean at least a three-year contract because limiting the agreement to a single year would mean Utah students would be assessed using three different companies' assessment programs within three years.
The board also directed staff to begin the process of selecting and entering into a contract with a long-term testing provider. The board spent an hour in executive session before taking the vote.
The board's decision came after growing concerns that the frequency of problems with the vendor's operating platform was impacting the board's ability to use RISE test results for accountability purposes.
Darin Nielsen, assistant superintendent of student learning, said the State School Board notified Questar of its decision to terminate the contract about 1 a.m. Friday, he said.
The board will be seeking "liquidated damages" for service interruptions, data delivery issues and possible data security breaches. The contract allows for damages of as high as $50,000 a day for some issues, according to the contract.
"The initial conversation was they were aware this was coming and they don't intend to contest those, assuming they feel we've treated them fairly, not trying to overapply those," Nielsen said.
Only one board member voted against the decision, Alisa Ellis, of Heber City. She said she voted against the motion to terminate the contract because she wanted the board to take another approach. She attended that portion of the meeting by phone and did not elaborate.
Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Questar Assessment Inc., said in a statement that the assessment company regretted the board's decision but offered his assurances that "Questar Assessment Inc. is going to do everything possible to ensure a smooth transition. We have committed to the Utah State Board of Education that we will maintain services on behalf of Utah students, teachers, and districts across the state until such time that an alternative vendor is selected.”
While the public became aware of problems with the testing platform during the spring, there were early indications that Questar was struggling to meet its contractual obligations.
Questar failed to meet two testing launch dates for assessments in the fall but Utah education officials said they understood that getting a new, custom assessment system off the ground within eight months of signing a contract "was challenging," Nielsen said.
By November a bigger concern had developed. The rostering system that gives individual students access to tests was malfunctioning.
"We're in 2019 now and most vendors don't have problems with rostering," Nielsen said. "The rostering shouldn't be that big of a lift for a statewide assessment."
In January, the state brought Questar President and CEO Stephen Lazer to Utah so he could assess the situation himself. The state took its complaints directly to Lazar on three occasions, Nielsen said.
While the company offered assurances that fixes were made — and at times there were temporary resolutions of some issues and some school districts had relatively smooth experiences depending on what day they tested students — many issues persisted and were not improving with the passage of time, Nielsen said.
"I'm not saying it was worst-case scenario, but it was pretty close," Nielsen said.
The state had a $30 million, five-year contract with Questar that later included an option for $44 million if the contract was extended to 10 years.
Thus far, the state has paid Questar about $6 million and has received invoices for approximately $1 million, but the charges are being disputed, Nielsen said.
RISE assessments were administered to students in grades three through eight in language arts and math using online multistage adaptive testing. Beginning in fourth grade, science is tested and writing is assessed for students in grades five and eight.
RISE is an acronym for Readiness, Improvement, Success and Empowerment. RISE was selected by the State School Board last year as a replacement for SAGE testing.
This spring, end-of-year testing was interrupted by several problems. Some districts reported that students received error notices as they attempted to submit completed tests, the system was slow and servers dropped in and out of service.
While some of the problems were localized, there were also statewide interruptions of testing, including rostering, Nielsen said.
In mid-May State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, in a letter sent to educators statewide, expressed concern about "overall accountability."10 comments on this story
"The best we could hope for is our analysis determines the interruptions that we’ve experienced did not have a statistically significant impact on the overall data. Another option would be placing an asterisk indicating where there have been testing irregularities that may have skewed the data.
"The most extreme recommendation would be to scrap accountability results for this year," Dickson wrote.
Nielsen said he is most troubled over the frustration felt by students and teachers at the school level and negative experiences attached to this year's statewide assessments.
The board is working with Questar to ensure the parties part way in an amicable fashion and the state can move ahead with the process of obtaining the services of another testing provider, he said.