State education officials reviewing contract of standardized testing company

Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 11:45pm

Approximately one year after a federal government audit criticized the Tennessee Department of Education for oversight inadequacies involving standardized testing controls — resulting, partly, in state correctional facility inmates having access to student identification information — the department is reviewing the contract with the entity the feds highlighted as culpable.

In the audit, authorities specifically raised concerns about state education department vendor Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction (TRICOR). It used inmates to count, inventory and shred various materials in bulk quantities. But included in the files were students’ names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and test performance data, according to the audit, all of which was handed over without prior consent from parents.

That information is protected by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

“The disclosure of this highly sensitive information to maximum security prison inmates is a significant security risk that could lead to the misuse of student [personal information],” the report says.

TRICOR is in the final months of a five-year contract with the state, according to Dan Long, executive director of the education department’s Office of Assessment, Evaluation and Research. He added that a new TRICOR contract is “under revision and review taking into consideration all audit concerns.”

Long said TRICOR handled the test procedures adequately, adding that the information was only being shipped in bulk; prisoners, he claimed, were not individually handling files.

Patricia Weiland, the company’s chief operating officer, said the agency agrees with the state’s assessment that “adequate security control measures” were in place.

“In the 10 years that TRICOR has provided these services to the TDOE, approximately 18.8 million forms have been processed,” Weiland said. “During that time, we have had no reported occurrences of misuse of information.”

Long said that no misuse of student information was ever revealed and no lawsuits stemmed from the audit.

Tennessee one of three audit states

Long said the feds conducted a purposeful audit — as opposed to one spurred by concerns — for process review of the education departments in three states with varying student population: Florida, Tennessee and Wyoming.

Education officials in Florida and Wyoming could not be reached for comment.

Long said for the years covered by the audit (conducted for the 2007-08 academic year and at the end of the five-year contract with various TDOE vendors involved in standardized testing), Tennessee law required the collection and use of students’ personal information.

On March 13, 2009, the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Inspector General provided a draft of the report to TDOE for review and comments. In TDOE’s comments to the draft report, dated April 14, 2009, federal officials said Tennessee education officials generally concurred with its findings.

The audits are used to calculate adequate yearly progress for a given academic year. The assessments included the spring 2008 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) achievement, the spring 2008 TCAP Writing, and the Gateway assessments administered in summer 2007, fall 2007 and spring 2008.

The education department’s contract obligations totaled about $89.6 million, with federal funding providing $43.9 million of that total. Long said TDOE implemented procedures that essentially resulted in a savings of about $5 million.

While the initial findings could’ve led to a loss of federal funding, Long said the department is safe for now. Approximately 51 percent of its funding comes from the federal government.

Federal officials could not be reached for comment.