Losing bidder says conflict should disqualify vendor picked for ILEARN

Last week, Indiana was set to move ahead with a new test company to create ILEARN. But on Friday, a rejected competitor threw a wrench into the process.

Data Recognition Corp., or DRC, which came in second in the bidding process, is asking the Indiana Department of Administration to halt movement on the winning proposal from Indianapolis-based American Institutes for Research, or AIR. Cincinnati-based DRC says its proposal was cheaper and that the process was marred by conflicts of interest—concerns that could delay the state’s plans.

AIR was chosen over four other vendors to receive a three-year contract to design ILEARN, or Indiana's Learning Evaluation Readiness Network. The test is planned for implementation in the spring of 2019. It will replace the much-maligned ISTEP standardized exam.

DRC is arguing that AIR’s test, which would draw from question banks developed for the Common-Core aligned Smarter Balanced test, would not be an appropriate match for Indiana academic standards. DRC also says the state’s testing director, Charity Flores, is too close to the winning vendor to have been impartial: Before joining state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s administration, Flores was deputy director of content for Smarter Balanced.

DRC says it made the lowest cost proposal at $37.5 million over three years, compared to the $43.4 million AIR proposed. They also scored highest in categories regarding women- and minority-owned businesses, where AIR scored negative points. They say their score was “inexplicably slashed” after oral presentations, which Flores participated in.

“By participating in the evaluation of the proposals, Flores engaged in conduct that constituted a conflict of interest,” DRC’s letter states. “(The contract) could amount to roughly $7,400,000 in revenue to Flores’ former employers. Flores would have known this fact when evaluating the proposals and it was her duty to avoid the conflict under Indiana law.”

The Indiana Department of Education told Chalkbeat last week that Flores was just one of 18 people on the panel charged with making a decision. Spokesman Adam Baker also noted that protests of vendor recommendations are not uncommon.

“We protected the integrity and transparency of the process by notifying the Office of the Inspector General of Dr. Flores’ involvement with Smarter Balanced,” Baker said last week. (Despite that, the Inspector General’s website shows no disclosures filed by Flores, nor any opinions from the State Ethics Commission regarding her previous employment. A request for more information from the Inspector General’s office was not immediately returned.)

DRC’s letter also argues that AIR’s proposal should have been rejected because of an Indiana law, approved in 2014 as part of a national backlash against the Common Core, that prohibited the adoption of standards or tests created solely by the federal government or by a group of states.

That law would seem to eliminate the option of using Smarter Balanced questions. But after another change to Indiana law in 2015, the state is now allowed to use any other assessment, or part of one, if it aligns with Indiana standards—essentially an escape clause for Indiana lawmakers, should an attractive test come along.

Testing experts have told Chalkbeat in the past that exams can be created from existing questions to align with Indiana standards.

In fact, Indiana’s new standards, adopted in 2014, have been compared several times to Common Core. The state’s earlier math standards were used to inform Common Core math standards, and a draft of the English standards include a “majority” of their content “verbatim” from Common Core English standards, according to a review from Achieve.

While the state has a history of stepping back from Common Core, there have been numerous recent decisions on science standards and past ISTEP tests that suggest Indiana isn’t quite as Common-Core averse as it once was.

The Indiana Department of Administration, which handles the process to choose vendors, could decide to withdraw their support of AIR’s proposal, but officials say there is no set timeline for a decision at this point.

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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