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Minnesota firm to pay Utah State Board of Education $3.3M after tech issues botched student testing

The Utah State Board of Education building in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
The Utah State Board of Education building in Salt Lake City is pictured on March 31, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A Minnesota company will pay the Utah State Board of Education more than $3.3 million to settle claims stemming from technical issues that plagued the administration of statewide RISE testing of students in grades 3 through 8 in spring 2019.

The settlement with Questar Assessment, Inc. announced Friday was approved by the State School Board, which met in executive session Thursday afternoon to review the agreement.

A statement from the board issued Friday said in part: “The parties had been involved in a lawsuit which included claims by Questar against the board and the board’s counterclaims against Questar. The parties, however, were able to resolve the case in its entirety without the need for further protracted litigation. The board was very pleased with the settlement, which requires Questar to pay the board $3,375,000.”

Messages left with Questar Assessment seeking comment were not returned.

The board hired the Apple Valley, Minnesota company in February 2018 to provide the technological platform to administer statewide RISE assessments to some 18,000 students in the 2018-19 school year. RISE is an acronym for Readiness, Improvement, Success and Empowerment assessments.

End-of-year testing in spring 2019 was disrupted by several problems. Some school districts reported that students received error notices as they attempted to submit completed tests, the system was slow and servers dropped in and out of service.

While some of the problems were localized, there were also statewide interruptions of testing, including rostering, state education officials said at the time.

In June 2019, the State School Board voted to terminate its 10-year $44 million contract with Questar and sought “liquidated damages” for service interruptions, data delivery issues and possible data security breaches. The contract allowed for damages of as high as $50,000 a day for some issues, according to the agreement.

Brad Baumgartner, then-chief operating officer of Questar Assessment Inc., said in a statement that the company regretted the board’s decision to end the contract.

He offered assurances that “Questar Assessment Inc. is going to do everything possible to ensure a smooth transition. We have committed to the Utah State Board of Education that we will maintain services on behalf of Utah students, teachers, and districts across the state until such time that an alternative vendor is selected,” in the 2019 statement.

The parties initially worked to come to terms on severing the agreement but over time, disputes arose.

In May 2020, the Minnesota vendor filed a lawsuit against the State School Board alleging breach of contract and sought damages in excess of $300,000, costs and reasonable attorneys fees.

According to the lawsuit, Questar received a letter from the school board seeking $6.75 million in liquidated damages related to the original contract. The Utah Attorney General’s Office, representing the board, later stated it would use the claimed liquidated damages to offset the undisputed balance due on the remaining Questar invoices, court documents state.

“Questar is not liable for liquidated damages under the contract. Unpaid invoices from the original contract and amendment, owed by USBE to Questar, total $2,648,664,” the lawsuit states.

The agreement announced Friday marks a conclusion to the parties’ claims and counterclaims.

“We are glad to reach a conclusion with Questar and move forward,” said Mark Huntsman, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, in a statement.

“This settlement represents the closing of a chapter for the state of Utah and serves the board’s goal of allowing us to continue to try and provide the very best tools and resources we can in regards to statewide assessments and accountability,” he said.