The pushback against standardized testing gained a valuable ally this weekend, but the other side won't go down easy. President Barack Obama appeared in a White House video Saturday urging lawmakers to limit the amount of classroom time spent preparing for and taking certain assessments.
The announcement was celebrated by many parents, teachers and students, but the testing industry may react by going on the offensive. Major players -- which include Pearson, the Educational Testing Service and the Data Recognition Corporation/CTB -- could suffer should Obama's push reduce schools' need for their services. But they also have political connections they could work to avoid resist change.
Some of Obama's proposals "actually require legislation at the state or local level and are not in the power of the feds," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, an advocacy group based in Boston. That could be good news for assessment companies that have paid large sums to lobby state legislatures in recent years to promote their products.
The average student takes 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and high school graduation, according to a study released Saturday by the Council of the Great City Schools, a national urban school coalition based in Washington. Youngsters spend between 4.8 and 25.3 hours a year completing the assessments, which are typically developed by one of the big companies after winning a state contract.
Federally mandated testing may not be the real issue: A Center for American Progress study found last year that local districts were the ones forcing most of the tests, and that could give testing companies that have close relationships with lawmakers some leverage to fight back.
For example, California lawmakers got a big chunk of the $3.5 million Pearson put toward lobbying state legislatures from 2009 to 2014, according to a March report from the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group based in Madison, Wisconsin. Educational Testing Service supported a 2013 bill aimed at revamping statewide testing there. The law passed, and in May California gave ETS a three-year, $240 million contract to administer its tests.
ETS also tentatively nabbed the biggest part of a four-year testing contract in Texas, totaling about $280 million, after spending $1.3 million from 2009-2013 lobbying there and in California. Pearson, which spent at least $580,ooo in lobbying in Texas in 2014, retained $60 million worth, according to the report. The Center for Media and Democracy included "wining and dining — or even hiring — policymakers" in its definition of lobbying, and it noted that several companies donated to the American Legislative Exchange Council -- which pushes conservative causes nationwide -- to set up meetings with education officials.
But donations don't automatically equal a win. The Huffington Post reported in 2013 that Pearson donated to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education. But in 2014, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart recommended the American Institutes for Research over Pearson for a $220 million, six-year contract to develop the state's new exam.
Similarly, New York state announced in July that it would drop Pearson, with which it had a $32 million contract through December, to award a five-year, $44 million contract to Questar Assessment Inc. In 2011, a New York Times investigation found that the now-defunct Pearson Charitable Foundation had funded trips for state education commissioners to meet with overseas officials. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman fined the corporation $7.7 million over the trips as well as the Pearson Foundation's development of Common Core materials.
It's overall unclear what impact, if any, Obama's proposal could have on the testing industry. But it didn't come as a total a surprise. Laura Howe, a Pearson spokeswoman, wrote in a statement to International Business Times that Obama's pushback against overtesting was consistent with a national movement calling for fewer and better tests.
"It’s important to know that Pearson does not set education policy," Howe said. "Our role is to support states in how they choose to implement their assessment efforts and we’ve been publicly supportive of the move to fewer and better tests. This is a continuation of an existing trend, and we are already working with states moving in that direction."