STAAR logo. Photo courtesy of the Texas Education Agency / The Texas Tribune.
STAAR logo. Photo courtesy of the Texas Education Agency / The Texas Tribune.
*Correction appended.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is penalizing the New Jersey-based company that develops and administers the state’s controversial STAAR tests – to the tune of $20.7 million – over widespread logistical and technical issues reported with the spring administration, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Tuesday.

The problems caused thousands of students to lose answers to online standardized tests.

The education agency is slapping Educational Testing Services (ETS) with $5.7 million in “liquidated damages” and also asking it to “invest $15 million of its own funds toward an action plan that addresses a number of areas of concern this past school year,” Morath said. Those areas include online testing and shipping, scoring of the tests and reporting results.

“I believe this combination of liquidated damages with an additional financial commitment from ETS reflects the correct balance of accountability for the recent past and safeguards for the future,” Morath said in a statement.

It is the largest fine the state has ever assessed against a testing vendor, said education agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

This was the first year ETS administered STAAR exams after the state scrapped the bulk of its longtime contract with London-based Pearson Education. The state also assessed a fine of $120,000 to Pearson, which retained a small part of the contract to test certain subgroups of students, “for some late deliveries and a service disruption one day in April,” Ratcliffe said in an email.

School districts reported dozens of logistical and technical issues during the spring administrations of the state-required exams known as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which fifth- and eighth-graders and high schoolers are supposed to pass before they can move on to the next grade or graduate. Scores also factor heavily into school district and campus accountability ratings. 

Problems first surfaced in March, when school districts reported problems with online tests that caused students to lose answers. The computer glitch impacted more than 14,000 exams. That was followed by reports of exams being shipped to the wrong location and delays in scoring. 

The issues prompted Morath to drop grade advancement consequences for fifth- and eighth-graders, and also exclude exams affected by the computer glitch from school accountability ratings. But despite pleas from school superintendents to throw out all scores for the purposes of rating schools, Morath has suggested the issues were not widespread or severe enough to do so.

ETS spent an additional $20 million providing support to school districts and charters as they attempted to resolve testing issues, according to an education agency news release. It noted that those costs will be assumed by the company and are “above and beyond” its state contract, worth $280 million over four years.

Correction: A previous version of this story listed the wrong amount of the testing contract. It is $280 million, not $340 million.

Disclosure: Educational Testing Service and Pearson have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read more about the contentious STAAR exams:

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Top image: STAAR logo. Photo courtesy of the Texas Education Agency for The Texas Tribune.

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Kiah Collier reports on the environment and public education for the Texas Tribune, where she began working in July 2015. Since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 with degrees in...