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Longtime Contractors Lose ERIC Units

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Washington--The Educational Testing Service and the National Council of Teachers of English have lost their bids for new, five-year contracts to continue running two of the federally funded information clearinghouses on education.

Each organization has operated an Educational Resources Information Center for
more than 17 years. Indiana University, which ran an eric clearinghouse on reading from 1968 through 1975, outbid the ncte to win a $2-million contract to operate the clearinghouse on reading and communication skills.

The ets lost its bid to the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based group that will operate the clearinghouse on tests, measurement, and evaluation for one to five years.

Contracts for 13 of the 16 clearinghouses expired on Dec. 31 and others will expire this year. Although not all of the negotiations are complete, the Education Department is expected to renew agreements with at least 13 of the universities and nonprofit education associations that currently operate centers.

A third center may also change hands, however. New Mexico State University, whose contract to run the clearinghouse on rural education and small schools expires in March, is competing for a new contract with Texas Tech University and the Appalachian Regional Laboratory.

Education Department officials declined last week to comment on the new awards, saying that they would wait to make a statement until all contracts were awarded, possibly by the end of this month.

But Indiana University and air officials speculated that their proposals to disseminate information to a wider audience may have swayed the federal reviewers in their favor.

The 21-year-old eric clearinghouses--the most widely used educational databank in the nation--collect and disseminate a wide range of education-related documents, including unpublished research studies, conference proceedings, journal articles, and indexes.

A 1986 Education Department plan to redesign the eric system, later scrapped in the face of opposition from researchers and members of the Congress, called for measures to enable the centers to reach a wider audience.

Loss 'A Tragedy'

Officials at the ncte, which has operated an eric clearinghouse since 1968, reacted with surprise and dismay at the news that they had lost their contract bid.

"The highest-rated clearinghouse in the country is now out of business," said John C. Maxwell, executive director of the council. "That's a tragedy."

Mr. Maxwell said he suspected that the Education Department "has a bias against" allowing professional associations to operate information services, and he noted that his association has taken political positions that are at odds with those of the Reagan Administration.

He stressed, however, that the information service had been completely separate from the council's political activities. "We have kept the eric thing squeaky clean," he said.

No Conflict of Interest

Officials of the ets, which has operated the clearinghouse on testing since its inception in 1970, denied that political considerations--including conflict-of-interest charges against the testing organization--played any role in last month's decision to award the $270,000 testing-center contract to air

"My own feeling is, air is a respectable organization; they can pre4pare a good proposal," said Alice Irby, vice president for field services of the Princeton, N.J., test publisher.

"We wish them well," she added. "We have no reason to believe they won't do a fine job."

In 1986, a group of 36 researchers, led by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), a Cambridge, Mass., advocacy group, asked the department to investigate ets's relationship with the clearinghouse. They charged that the testing firm could not disseminate unbiased information because of its financial interest in tests.

Education Department officials rejected the charges and supported the company.

Broader Dissemination

Officials of the two groups that wrested the contracts from the ncte and the ets said last week that they were probably able to outbid their more established rivals because their proposals emphasized wide dissemination of information.

"I suspect it was because we have a strong commitment to disseminate the information to the general public--to parents and the community, not just the research community," said Carl B. Smith, professor of education, who will direct the new iu center.

"Typically, eric has served the research community, and done it quite well," he added. "But we plan to make a number of information products available to a broader spectrum of people."

Mr. Smith said he has contacted the Education Writers Association, which has agreed to distribute to its members a newsletter listing materials and research data collected by the center. The Association of American Publishers has also agreed to distribute a similar report to textbook publishers, he said.

Mr. Smith also noted that he and other university officials have had experience in operating an eric center. He served for two years as co-director of the center for reading, which the university operated for seven years before the center was merged with the ncte's clearinghouse on communications skills.

Indiana also houses the clearinghouse on social studies and social-science education, but the two centers will remain separate entities, according to John Patrick, director of the university's social-studies development center.

Lawrence M. Rudner, project director for the American Institutes for Research, said his firm planned "to emphasize practitioners and users" of testing products in its dissemination efforts.

The firm could produce, for example, documents for statisticians explaining how test standards are set, or materials to help teachers and parents understand test scores, Mr. Rudner said.

Air has extensive experience in explaining technical material to a general audience, Mr. Rudner said, noting that it has had a contract with the Ford Motor Company to produce owners' manuals for the Ford Taurus automobile.

Staff Writer Julie A. Miller contributed to this report.

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