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Seeking to Pare State Exams, Lawmakers Take Aim at Testing Firm

As the Texas Legislature looks to overhaul the state’s standardized testing program amid outcry from parents and school leaders, state lawmakers have focused their criticism on the company that develops the tests.

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As the Texas Legislature moves to uproot the state’s standardized testing program amid outcry from parents and school leaders, state lawmakers have focused their criticism on the publishing giant that develops the tests.

Pearson holds a five-year, $468 million contract through 2015 to provide the state assessments that students begin taking in third grade. While policies that led to the contract won unanimous approval four years ago, lawmakers looking to understand what brought the state to this point have settled on what they view as the excessive influence of the testing lobby in the policymaking process.

“Testing companies are in the business of making a profit, but let’s not confuse their mission — their mission is to create as many tests as they can and then grade them at as little cost as possible,” Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said Tuesday at a hearing on a comprehensive education bill that would reduce the number of high-stakes tests students must take to graduate.

Since the current legislative session began, members of both chambers have made their hostility to the testing industry clear.

In their initial appropriations bill, House budget writers eliminated state spending for student assessments. More recently, members of the lower chamber passed amendments to limit political contributions by testing lobbyists, and ban them from serving on state education advisory committees. And Patrick has repeatedly called Pearson officials before his committee for questioning.

When Michael Williams, the new Texas Education Agency commissioner, made his first appearance before a Senate panel in January, members jumped at the opportunity to lodge their concerns.

Dissatisfied with responses from Williams during one exchange, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, demanded, “Are we testing these children too much, and are we spending too much money?"

Concern over the new assessment system started well before public school students began taking them last spring. For the first time they linked student performance to diploma requirements and final grades, generating widespread confusion among school districts about how to apply the new rules and anxiety among parents about how their children’s performance on the exams would affect their prospects at graduation.

Moreover, lawmakers had decided to move forward with the new standardized tests in 2011 at the same time they enacted a record $5.4 billion reduction in state funding to public schools— a fact that did not ease outrage from school leaders when low passing rates last June landed hundreds of thousands of students in summer classes at school districts’ expense.  

If lawmakers are looking for answers, said former Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat who retired after the 2011 session, they should first look at themselves.

“As far as I know, Pearson doesn’t vote in the Legislature,” he said. “Pearson didn’t decide how many tests there would be. They didn’t decide how many tests had to be passed.”

Hochberg said the company was “a convenient target," but not an accurate one. “If they have too much power, it’s because they’ve been given that power,” he said.

The state has held contracts with Pearson since it began requiring student assessments in the 1980s, according to Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

She said Pearson, which has assessment contracts with several other states, provides a service that few others can.

“There aren’t many testing programs left that can handle a program the size of ours,” she said. “We typically get two or three bids, but theirs has always been far and away the best.”

Asked about the backlash Pearson faced in the Legislature, Susan Aspey, vice president of media relations for Pearson, said in a statement that the company’s goal was  “fair and accurate assessments that help educators and parents know that all children are learning.”

Ratcliffe said she did not understand the complaint that the company had driven policymaking in the state. When the state develops a new assessment program, she said, the testing company provides technical consultants, but the education agency also accepts input from committees of teachers and policy experts from around the country.

Nonetheless, the ethics amendments in the House were aimed specifically at the activities of one Pearson lobbyist on those committees, Sandy Kress, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and Dallas Independent School District board member. Kress, who declined to comment for this article, was an architect of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which mandated standardized testing as a way to hold states accountable for students’ achievement.

He first served on an agency committee in 1996, Ratcliffe said, before his association with Pearson began. She said he had continued to because he brought the perspective of the business community, and experience in federal policy and as a former school board member.

When legislation passed during the waning days of the 2009 session aimed at raising the number of public high school students graduating from rigorous, college-preparatory programs and instituting a new state testing program, it did so with little controversy. Though it had grown more complicated when legislators went into to conference committee to work out their differences, every member of both chambers voted in favor of the final product.

“Parents liked it because it was getting rid of TAKS,” the state’s previous assessment system, Patrick said. “Educators liked it because student performance would be tied into exams.”

But other lawmakers have acknowledged they did not fully realize at the time the implications of the legislation. Former Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat who served seven terms in the Legislature until he was defeated in 2010, testified at a 2012 interim hearing about his concerns over the bill that he had backed.

Dunnam, whose daughter was in the first high school class affected by the new system, was puzzled to discover at midyear that she did not have a grade average or class rank on her report card.

He called a colleague. “Tell me I didn’t vote for this,” he said.

A legislative calendar that allows for large changes in conference committees at the end of the session with almost no transparency, means you have to “take on faith” that the results represent lawmakers’ intentions, he said.

Legislators often did not recognize the influence of testing companies, he said.“There is just an inertia to not appreciating the money being made by private industry in public education.”

In an interview the day after Tuesday’s committee hearing, Patrick said he had entered the session with an open mind about how to address the challenges surrounding the newly implemented assessment system.

After months of meetings and hours of testimony on the topic, he said lawmakers across party lines had reached an agreement that high-stakes testing in the state had gone too far.

He said he could not hold the testing lobby completely responsible for a policy the Legislature had approved, but that its role in the process shared some of the blame.

“What I do believe is they have led a very small chorus — not even a chorus — a quartet of voices and a lot of information that has been put forth has been very misleading,” he said.

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Public education 83rd Legislative Session Dan Patrick Education Jane Nelson Texas Education Agency