NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Texas Hires Two Companies To Run STAAR, Moving Toward Statewide Online Testing

A handmade banner reading, "Score a homerun on the STAAR" hangs above a school hall entryway.
Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune
Texas awarded two new standardized testing contracts this past fall.

Texas is once again shaking up its standardized testing contracts, signing four-year agreements totaling $338 million with two companies to develop and administer its controversial STAAR exams for public school students.

Cambium Assessment, a Washington D.C.-based testing company will receive $262 million from 2021 through 2024 to manage the administration, scoring and reporting of all student assessments on one online platform.

Pearson, a London-based company whose longtime role in Texas' testing program was scaled back several years ago, will receive an additional $126 million from 2021 through 2024 to develop and construct the assessments. It will also continue work on an existing testing contract through August.

The two companies will take over from Educational Testing Service, or ETS, which has had the bulk of the state's testing contract since 2016. ETS' contract ends Aug. 31. In 2021, Texas will pay all three companies a total of at least $120.6 million across four contracts for services related to student testing, according to the state budget site.

Cambium, Pearson and the Texas Education Agency will work with local and regional education officials "over the next eight months to gather input and ensure a seamless transition of vendor services and support," state education officials said announcing the new contracts to school officials in a December email provided to The Texas Tribune.

Both Cambium and Pearson's newest contracts were competitively bid in 2019, each receiving a total of three bids, according to the Legislative Budget Board website. Cambium's contract was awarded in November and Pearson's in October.

Texas students grades 3-12 take the STAAR assessments, which often determine whether they can graduate or move up to the next grade. Parents and teachers have argued for years that the tests are too high-stakes, and inaccurate measures of whether students are learning.

Proponents of the assessments argue they help hold schools accountable for educating all students.

The switch in vendors comes as Texas builds toward having all students take the tests online. Currently, just 20% of Texas students take the STAAR online, many of them students with disabilities and those learning English, according to Cambium's contract.

Pearson was the state's sole testing vendor for more than three decades starting in 1980. As the pendulum of public opinion shifted away from high-stakes testing in 2013, advocates and lawmakers from both parties argued Pearson had too much influence over education policy with too little scrutiny. In 2016, Texas awarded most of the testing contract to New Jersey-based ETS and kept a fraction with Pearson.

As ETS' contract was set to end in 2019, Texas chose to extend ETS' contract through Aug. 31. Because the pandemic resulted in the STAAR being canceled last March, Texas reduced ETS' contract by $19 million, according to a memo the agency included with a June contract amendment.

Texas will pay ETS $74.6 million in 2021 to construct the test form, produce test books and answer documents, administer and score student assessments this spring. It will also pay Cambium about $6.8 million and Pearson about $23.9 million in 2021 for work on their testing contracts, according to the state budget website.

Since 2016, Texas has paid Pearson to develop testing materials for students learning English and those with severe disabilities. It will receive an additional $15.3 million for that contract in 2021.

Many parents, educators and lawmakers have argued Texas should ask the federal government for a waiver and not require students to take the STAAR this spring, especially since the pandemic has destabilized education. Last year, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced students would still be required to take the exam this spring, but that schools and districts would not be rated on the scores.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Aliyya Swaby started as the Texas Tribune's public education reporter in October 2016. She came to the Tribune from the hyperlocal nonprofit New Haven Independent, where she covered education, zoning and transit for two years. After graduating from Yale University in 2013, she spent a year freelance reporting in Panama on social issues affecting black Panamanian communities. A native New Yorker, Aliyya misses public transportation but is thrilled by the lack of snow.