Published: Jun 29, 2010 7:28 PM EDT
Updated: Jun 29, 2010 4:28 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A contractor faces costs and damages
that could top $25 million for being more than a month late with
standardized test scores, released Tuesday, that show improvement
by most of Florida's school children.
      Bloomington, Minn.-based NCS Pearson's contract includes
penalties ranging from $10,000 to $250,000 per day for missing
deadlines on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The scores
for grades four through 11 were supposed to be delivered May 19-21.
      Although the scores are late, Education Commissioner Eric Smith
said he is confident the FCAT scores are accurate. Delays were
caused by problems in matching databases, not the quality of the
scoring, he said.
      "You can put complete faith in these numbers," Smith said.
"Parents should believe in them."
      They show improvements of 1 to 4 percentage points for most
grade levels in reading, math and science. Writing scores are down
for most grades, but Smith said this year's writing test cannot be
compared with those in the past because it was significantly
changed.
      The state already has asked Pearson to pay $3 million in
penalties for delays in previously released third grade reading and
math scores and retakes of the 10th grade FCAT. Third grade reading
results are used to promote students to the fourth grade. High
school students must pass the 10th grade exam to receive a standard
diploma.
      FCAT results at all levels are used to grade the state's
schools. Those getting an A or improving by at least one grade can
receive a reward of up to $75 per student. Chronically failing
schools can face penalties that include removing teachers and other
staff or closure.
      Smith said Pearson, in the first year of a $254 million,
four-year contract to administer the test, has committed to paying
costs beyond a $25 million cap on penalties if required.
      Smith said remaining penalties haven't yet been calculated and
that the state also will ask for costs incurred by school districts
related mainly to the FCAT's dual purpose as an individual
assessment tool.
      "The real impact is finalizing some of the scheduling of a
school to make sure that students are properly identified for class
assignments for the fall and the proper staff is hired," Smith
said.
      Due to budget cuts, many schools no longer keep guidance
counselors and other staffers on 12-month contracts, Smith said.
      "These people just aren't around in the month of July to finish
up this work," Smith said. "So they're going to need to be called
back."
      This isn't the first time the FCAT has had problems. A design
flaw in 2006 caused inflated grades for the third grade reading
test. Scores also were delayed in 2008, but not as late as this,
Smith said.
      Those problems occurred when the state used CTB/McGraw-Hill,
also the only other bidder for the current contract.
      Smith said he believes Pearson can fix the current problems
before the next round of testing in October.
      "We do have very intense and aggressive conversations going on
with Pearson," Smith said. "If I thought Pearson simply could not
deliver ... we would go in a different direction."
      Reading results show that 72 percent of fourth graders scored at
grade level or above, down 2 percentage points from last year.
Fifth graders also were down 2 points, but sixth through ninth
grades each were up 1 percentage point and 10th grade was up 2
points.
      Fourth and ninth graders were down a percentage point in math
but other grades were up with 10th grade showing the biggest gain
of four percentage points to 73 percent.
      Science scores remain low but were up for each of the three
grades tested. Only 49 percent of fifth graders scored at or above
grade level but that was three percentage points better than last
year. Eighth grade was up 2 points to 43 percent and 11th grade up
1 point to 38 percent.