Did a Test Company Mess Up Its Hopes to Go Global?

Educational Testing Service received a failing grade last week when returning results of the Scholastic Aptitude Test to British students. The U.K. paid $330 million (for a five-year contract) for ETS to administer the exams. But with boxes of abandoned papers, rumors that some scorers were underqualified, and 120,000 children waiting for their results, the business deal is in jeopardy. "I'm amazed they haven't been more effective or more efficient," says Shadow Education Minister Michael Gove. "[Continuing] with this contract in the U.K. is unacceptable."

That's bad news for ETS, which hopes global expansion will add to its portfolio of tests including the SAT, TOEFL and Advance Placement exams. Their new president had mandated they become a billion-dollar company--in 2006, they made $815 million--but the crisis in Britain may ripple throughout their offices in countries like Singapore, Jordan and the Netherlands. "For a big American company, it's just embarrassing," says parent Chris Orzel, whose son is still waiting for his scores. "I helped coach him throughout the year using mock papers," the father says. Parents look at a given district's test results to determine the best school for their children. "Schools live and die by their SAT results," says head teacher Helen Coulthard, whose daughter had panic attacks while taking her exams. She, too, is awaiting scores; meanwhile ETS insists this is an isolated incident. Their staffers had been camped out in an airport hotel playing catch-up for four weeks.

But it's not the first time the test company has failed students. In 2001, nearly 1,000 would-be graduate students received lower GMAT scores than deserved; now, rival company Pearson administers that exam. And in 2004, ETS mistakenly distributed failing scores to 4,000 candidates who had passed Praxis, a teacher-licensing exam. In the ensuing settlement, the company paid more than $11 million to out-of-work teachers. "If you had someone bidding on a contract with a track record like that," says Robert Schaeffer of the National Center of Fair and Open Testing, "you'd probably want to build in benchmarks and penalties." In other words, you'd do your homework--or get a failing grade.

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