ETS shuts up shop and heads back to US

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Thousands of scripts are still missing and markers have yet to be paid, but the American company winds up its UK operation

Barely 18 months ago, it all looked so different for ETS Europe.

The American testing firm celebrated clinching a Pounds 156 million, five-year contract that put it right at the heart of the English assessment system, with responsibility for running the marking of Sats throughout England.

Its directors were even invited to a dinner with Qualifications and Curriculum Authority board members to toast the deal, which was held up by the QCA as a model of good practice.

Jump forward a year and a half and ETS is winding up its entire English operation and heading back stateside with its tail firmly between its legs.

After the biggest fiasco ever to hit the testing regime and with some angry markers still hoping it will honour a pledge not to let them go unpaid, its stock on this side of the pond could hardly be lower.

The TES understands thousands of pupils' scripts are still missing, league tables have been put back until the spring and the ensuing chaos appears to have played a considerable part in bringing about the death of KS3 Sats.

In August, after realising it would make a Pounds 50 million loss on the first year of marking, ETS agreed with the NAA to terminate its contract.

The firm still has a small presence in England supporting the test contract from its offices in Watford, but it is now winding down that operation, with a warning to examiners that they have until next Tuesday (October 21) to submit applications for unclaimed work. Andy Latham, vice- president of ETS Europe who managed the marking operation and for a time was the public face of ETS in England, has already moved back to the United States.

Kelly Southcott, the firm's head of communications, admitted that ETS was in the process of winding up its operations, although she could not give a definite date for finishing the work. "We are in the process of shutting things down now," she said.

Markers who do submit claims to the company for money they are owed by Tuesday, however, have been assured that they will be paid and that the company is not simply disappearing after that date.

Ms Southcott added that "a lot of people have lost their jobs" at ETS's offices in Watford.

Philip Tabbiner, an ETS executive who was sent from the company's headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, to the UK to try to sort out the mess in May, told a Parliamentary hearing last month that the company had originally planned to employ 60 staff to support the marking. But as the crisis built, at one stage, he said, 400 were in the company's employ.

ETS's many critics might see this as evidence that the company failed to appreciate what it was taking on when it bid for the contract.

England's high-stakes testing system is unique, not least in the demands it makes on administrators and markers to turn around millions of test papers within weeks and return them to schools.

Linda O'Carroll, a marker who has dealt with ETS extensively on the behalf of fellow examiners, said the firm appeared not to have understood what it was getting into.

ETS runs the American university entrance test, rather confusingly also called the SAT, and the company operates in 180 countries. But much of its expertise lies in testing methodology and research, rather than in the day-to-day business of organising home-based markers and script delivery.

Mrs O'Carroll said: "One ETS employee told me in exasperation when things were getting difficult that ETS is not a logistics company. The company was simply not appropriate for this contract."

Dr Tabbiner told MPs that ETS had never pulled out of a testing contract in its 61-year history.

A measure of how badly things went in England was after ETS offered the technology it had developed to support the marking this year - it repeatedly proved problematic for markers - to the NAA for use next year. This was rejected.

ETS can expect more bad headlines later this term when the independent Sutherland inquiry into this summer's events concludes.

There seems little doubt that ETS will be glad to be off the scene. Dr Tabbiner said that it simply could not sustain losses on the scale of this year. Few teachers will be sad to see it go.

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