Seeking to Pare Standardized Tests, Legislators Take Aim at Testing Firm

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

Pearson holds a five-year, $468 million contract through 2015 to provide the state assessment tests that students begin taking in third grade. While policies that led to the contract won unanimous approval four years ago, some lawmakers now say Pearson exerted excessive influence in the policy-making 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," the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, said Tuesday at a hearing on a comprehensive education bill that would reduce the number of high-stakes tests students must pass 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 to ban them from serving on state education advisory committees. And Mr. Patrick has repeatedly called Pearson officials before his committee for sharp questioning.

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

Dissatisfied with responses from Mr. Williams during one exchange, Senator Jane Nelson, Republican of 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 decided to move forward with the standardized tests in 2011, at the same time they enacted a record $5.4 billion reduction in state financing 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.

But if lawmakers are looking for answers, said former Representative Scott Hochberg, Democrat of Houston, 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."

Mr. Hochberg said Pearson 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 had a contract with Pearson since Texas began requiring student assessments in the 1980s, according to Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Ms. Ratcliffe said Pearson, which holds 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. Asked about the backlash Pearson faced in the Legislature, Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman 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."

Ms. Ratcliffe said she did not understand criticism that the company was driving policy in the state. The testing company provided technical consultants, she said, but the education agency also accepted input from committees of teachers and policy experts from around the country.

Nontheless, 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. He was an architect of the No Child Left Behind federal education act, which mandated standardized testing as a way to hold states accountable for students' achievement.

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

When legislation aimed at raising the number of public high school students graduating from rigorous, college-preparatory programs passed during the waning days of the 2009 session, it did so with little controversy -- even though it grew more complicated after legislators went into to conference committee to work out their differences. Every member of both chambers voted in favor of the bill.

"Parents liked it because it was getting rid of TAKS," the state's previous assessment system, Mr. 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 State Representative Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat who served seven terms until he was defeated in 2010, testified at a 2012 interim hearing about his concerns over the bill, which he had backed.

Mr. Dunnam's daughter was in the first high school class affected by the new system, and he 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.

Legislators may not have recognized 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, Mr. Patrick said he had entered the session with an open mind.

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

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

"What I do believe is they have led a very small chorus," Mr. Patrick said, "and a lot of information that has been put forth has been very misleading."

msmith@texastribune.org

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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