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Senate Panel Discusses Scrutiny of State Testing Contracts

The procedures that led to the state's five-year, $468 million standardized testing contract with Pearson were the focus of a Senate panel's hearing Tuesday on legislation that would change how the state handles future agreements.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, listens after questioning Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, on SB 23 in Senate Education Committee April 9, 2013.

The procedures that led to the state's five-year, $468 million standardized testing contract were the focus of a hearing Tuesday morning on legislation from Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

Senate Bill 1308 would require the state to develop methodology to audit standardized testing contracts and include regular audits as a condition of all future agreements. During the Senate Education Committee hearing, lawmakers questioned officials from the Texas Education Agency and Pearson, the company that develops and administers the state exams, on the protocol for accepting and reviewing such contracts. The bill was left pending in committee.

Citing issues that other states have had with Pearson's administration of their standardized exams — including high costs and  errors in scoring the exams in New York, barring almost 2,700 students from gifted and talented programs — Davis said closer oversight was needed in Texas, where she said the company had exercised a "monopoly" for many years.

The publishing and assessment giant has held contracts for the state's assessment programs since Texas began the standardized testing of students in the 1980s.

Of particular concern for lawmakers on the panel was the increasing cost of the testing contract after its initial approval by the state.

"We used to have this little game that would be played where a vendor would respond to [a request for proposal] to beat the others," Davis said, referring to the time she spent serving on Fort Worth City Council. "Then afterward they would come in and amend the contract until the cost of the contract was far in excess of the original contract."

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said that if lawmakers had known the vast expense of the contract, which she said had made the state the "laughingstock of the nation," they would not have approved the legislation. 

"We thought we were voting on about a $50 million [a year] contract, we were easing into it, so how in the world did we end up with now almost $500 million?" Van de Putte asked. 

Gloria Zyskowski, a TEA deputy commissioner, explained that the contract included not just the new exams required by the Legislature, but also other programs such as English-language proficiency exams.

Zyskowski said that Davis' legislation "probably will not change" the agency's operations on a daily or weekly basis but that periodic reviews of the testing contracts would be helpful.  

"We would welcome having some other entity with oversight of [the contract] to come in and do an audit of it," she said. "I have no problem at all with that."

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Public education 83rd Legislative Session Texas Education Agency Wendy Davis