KXAN (AUSTIN) - It is testing time for Central Texas students required to pass the state's new standardized test to assess their academic readiness. And a battle over the entire testing system is brewing between the state, educators, parents and students.
Rising costs surrounding state exams has been one of the big talking points among testing critics.
"This has become a moneymaker," said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin.
You don't have to be a mathematician to figure out testing three million Texas students a year isn't cheap.
"The overall cost is a large number. There's no doubt about it," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
KXAN News has uncovered that the state is spending more than $89 million on testing for the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, this year alone. That amount has nearly doubled in the last 10 years.
Every penny goes to a company called Pearson, which develops the test questions, prints and distributes test booklets and scores the exams before sending them back to 8,000 schools.
The state's five-year contract with Pearson, which covers the 2010 through 2015 school years, totals just over $468 million.
Based on figures provided by TEA, Texas taxpayers by 2015 will have paid Pearson nearly $1.2 billion for developing standardized tests and related materials dating back to the year 2000.
(See year-by-year breakdown below)
The annual cost goes up each year. In 2015, standardized testing will set the state back nearly $100 million.
Texas Education Agency officials said that big number boils down to just $5 to $7 per student.
"We keep growing the number of students and we keep increasing the number of tests and so the costs keep rising," said Ratcliffe.
Sandy Kress was an education adviser to George W. Bush during his time as Texas governor and later as president, and she was also a former adviser to Gov. Rick Perry. Kress helped develop the state testing accountability system passed by state lawmakers in the early 1990's.
"The question really is, do we want to know how our students are doing? Is it worth it to know? I think it is," said Kress. "What this new system the Legislature has put in place requires is that we know year to year -- mom, dad, the taxpayer -- know year to year whether the student is on the path to having that capacity to get a good job."
Kress told KXAN News he has worked for Pearson since 2002, which was prior to all of his state/national work on the accountability system.
When asked about how much he has been paid by Pearson, Kress said, "That's between me and them."
He went on to say the views he expressed in the interview were "not affected one iota" by their business relationship.
"I didn't take a single view on air because someone is paying me to take it," Kress said.
The cost keeps rising
But local cash-strapped districts said the money spent on testing alone is mounting.
The Hays Consolidated Independent School District gave KXAN News a rare look inside Lehman High School in Kyle.
Counselors had been pulled away from their daily duties to sharpen pencils, inventory calculators, and to make sure hundreds of answer sheets, test booklets and seating charts were accounted for.
A senior English teacher had been taken out of her classroom all week to help test students with special needs.
"Instead of those teachers being in the classroom teaching their students all day long, we actually hire subs to come in and teach their classes so they can administer tests in small groups," said Marlo Malott, Lehman High School academic dean.
And officials expect bigger bills down the road.
"I had a principal tell me today that the campus test coordinating position that used to be a stipend position at all our campuses now really needs to be a full time position in the spring time because of the demands of delivering all of these assessments to these students," said Hays Superintendent Jeremy Lyon.
Adding more staff
The Round Rock school district is adding a full-time testing coordinator at all five high school campuses at a salary of $50,000 each.
Districts are also bracing for higher summer school expenses to help students who don't do well on the new test.
Kress questions whether all of it is really necessary, and said the education agency could help districts come up with less costly solutions.
"Could it be done more efficiently? I bet it could be, but to have an assessment so that parents can know. I think that's absolutely worth every dollar."
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