State severs its ties with MCA administrators

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2013 - 10:58 AM

After months of contention, American Institutes for Research says it will not try to renew its $61 million contract with state.

The Washington, D.C.-based company that administers standardized testing in Minnesota schools won’t be doing business with the state after this school year, according to documents obtained Wednesday by the Star Tribune.

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) recently notified the Minnesota Department of Education that it won’t try to renew its $61 million, three-year contract when it expires in one year.

The decision to effectively sever business ties is supported by department officials who have grown increasingly frustrated with AIR, particularly after online testing problems disrupted the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments last school year. An estimated 15,000 students from 400 schools experienced testing problems over two days in April, according to department reports.

“Quite simply, what happened last spring is not acceptable,” Charlene Briner, the department’s chief of staff, said Wednesday.

AIR in turn has been sharply critical of the department, and company officials say they have no desire to continue testing services for the agency after this school year.

In a tersely worded letter to AIR in September, education department officials threatened to withhold payments if the company doesn’t provide detailed documentation showing how it plans to resolve a number of problems, mostly related to customer service, not the validity or design of the tests.

“Despite repeated requests for improved communications, specific requests for deliverables and direction to meet established deadlines over the last year, there has been no significant improvement,” wrote Deputy Commissioner Jessie Montano. “As a result, Minnesota resources continue to be expended on tasks that AIR is contracted to perform yet has not delivered.”

Claims disputed

Officials with AIR dispute many of the department’s claims of poor service. In fact, they say many of the problems rest solely with department actions, including “failure to meet schedules, an unwillingness to make decisions in a timely manner, revision of requirements well after the specifications were completed and work began, poor decision making, and unreasonable demands for out-of-scope deliverables.”

Jon Cohen, AIR’s executive vice president, said that despite the tense relationship between his company and the department, he is confident it won’t interfere with the upcoming testing season.

“Everything is going to be fine, probably better than in the past,” he said Wednesday. “We all have the same goal of making sure we have the best testing season possible.”

Briner agreed.

“Our goal is to have a very smooth test season this spring,” she said.

Testing last school year was anything but smooth.

Some students encountered delays logging on, while others were forced to end their sessions early over the course of a two-week period. AIR representatives said Internet problems caused the glitches one day, while a database server malfunctioned on another. They disputed the extent of the problems on other days.

The department temporarily suspended testing on April 16 and gave students more time to complete the exams — a decision backed by the U.S. Department of Education, which was also monitoring online-testing problems in Indiana, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

The Star Tribune obtained copies of hundreds of messages sent to the department that show schools were growing frustrated with AIR’s help desk before and during the controversial testing period.

Briner said the department expects to have a new testing vendor selected by spring 2014.

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