A Washington DC nonprofit filed an appeal in court today challenging New Mexico's decision to award a lucrative standardized testing contract to for-profit education giant Pearson.
The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is appealing a decision by the state's purchasing agent to greenlight a contract that will allow Pearson to write and administer the annual test for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC) consortium. The consortium is funded by the federal government and consists of 14 states that have banded together to create a new standardized test aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
New Mexico is a member of PARCC and the state's Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera sits on its governing board. As a member of PARCC, New Mexico's education department last year stepped forward to handle the consortium's contracting to find a company to write the new standardized test. It handed the testing contract to Pearson, whose product would reach up to 10 million students across the 14 PARCC member states over a potential period of eight years.
In total, the testing contract could earn Pearson, the world's largest education contractor, more than $1 billion over eight years.
But AIR, which also writes and administers standardized tests, quickly filed a protest over the contract even before it was awarded to Pearson. The nonprofit alleges, among other things, that New Mexico's bidding of the contract was rigged toward the education giant. Chief among AIR's concerns in its reading of the bid is how the contract requires the winner of the PARCC contract—whether it was Pearson or a different company—to use Pearson's online testing system for the first year of testing.
The tailoring to Pearson, AIR alleges, is uncompetitive and violates the state procurement code.
"No one but Pearson could have won that first year," AIR Executive Vice President Jon Cohen told SFR earlier this month. "They wanted to carry that advantage to all the other years."
New Mexico Purchasing Agent Larry Maxwell rejected AIR's protest of the contract bid on July 2, arguing that the state's request for proposal "was a careful and thoughtful decision and approach made for the benefit of the public."
After the rejection, AIR says it reached out to PARCC to ask about breaking the first year from the remaining seven years into two contracts.
"After several weeks of silence, PARCC responded but was unable to make any commitments to allow future competition or reduce the term of the contract," reads an AIR press release sent out today. "This left AIR with no recourse but to pursue this challenge to the original, flawed competition."
The appeal, which names Maxwell and the state Public Education Department as defendants, was filed in New Mexico's First Judicial District Court today. It asks the court to force the state to cancel and rebid years two through eight of the contract.
Throughout the entire saga, the state education department has alleged that AIR is motivated only by its desire to win the contract for itself.
"This is an issue that has been argued and lost by the other side, twice," education department spokesman Larry Behrens writes SFR in a statement. "We will continue to move forward with what is in the best interest of New Mexico's students. It appears their singular goal is to try and derail a lot of hard work on behalf of our students for no other purpose than to increase their own market share."
But AIR is adamant in maintaining that it wants the first year of the PARCC test, scheduled to phase in this upcoming school year in New Mexico and the 13 other states, to remain intact.
"We understand that PARCC has critical timelines," Cohen says in a statement. "We don't want to slow them down. We just want them to obey contracting law and have a legitimate competition."
Read AIR's appeal below: