Report: Texas lacked oversight of testing contract

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The state auditor’s office issued a report Tuesday criticizing as too vague a $462 million contract that allows a Britain-based multinational firm to produce standardized tests for Texas public schools. And it says education officials lacked proper oversight to make changes and ensure they get what they pay for.

Auditors say that will hinder the Texas Education Agency’s ability to assess the cost of the Legislature’s reduction in exams that high school students across Texas must pass to graduate. That number went from a nation-leading 15 to five.

The report says the agency “complied with most requirements” in its agreement with NCS Pearson to produce and grade state-mandated exams. But “it did not ensure that the contract contained sufficient detail about deliverables and costs to independently determine the reasonableness of changes in the price of the contract.”

It also found that Texas lacks “adequate processes for monitoring the contract.” All of that “limits the agency’s ability to assess the fiscal effect of changes to statewide testing requirements.”

Texas has long been a national leader in steep school and academic accountability standards measured by frequent standardized testing. But facing a backlash from students, parents, teachers and school administrators who complained about “overtesting,” legislators approved a law this session that dramatically reduces testing requirements.

That will affect Texas’ contract with Pearson to produce standardized tests statewide from September 2010 to August 2015. But based on Tuesday’s report, education officials may struggle to make those adjustments.

NCS Pearson is incorporated in Minnesota, but its parent company is English. Tea Party activists and other grassroots conservative groups have criticized the firm, saying its agreement with the state lacked proper oversight.

Some are also suspicious that a company based outside the United States has so much influence on Texas public schools — though Pearson also maintains a large presence in the state.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams released a statement saying the recommendations from the state auditor’s office can strengthen his agency’s oversight of student-testing contracts.

“I am confident that the Texas Education Agency has been an effective steward and watchdog of taxpayer dollars from the inception of this important contract,” Williams said. “However, the SAO review has provided recommendations that can help us better track and strengthen our oversight.”

Tuesday’s report also notes that TEA doesn’t comply with regulations requiring disclosure if its former employees or retirees now work for Pearson since the testing contract was amended in May 2011 to remove certain disclosure clauses.

Williams said that the agency has worked with the auditor’s office for months during its review and that while the original contract with Pearson was for $468.4 million, it has since been reduced by more than $6 million. He also said the Pearson agreement accounts for 61 percent of the funds spent on all agency contracts.

Pearson says that during the 2011-12 school year, it administered more than 11.5 million tests to public school students in grades three to 12.

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