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Assessment Industry Faces a Test of Its Own

Testing experts said congressional leaders are discussing whether to encourage states to give tests earlier in the academic year to avoid a springtime overload, especially in May. (Many Maryland schools test in March; D.C. schools, in April.) They also said some lawmakers are considering whether to ease the midsummer deadline for results.

A spokesman for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a leading sponsor of No Child Left Behind in 2001, said Miller and his staff had no comment. Other congressional sources said nearly every idea is on the table, including setting multiple testing periods in the school year and letting states pick the period they want to use.

But further complications could arise if Congress takes steps to encourage a new model of rating schools. That model would track individual students' progress from year to year. Currently, results for students at a given grade level are compared with results from students who were in that grade the previous year.

Another industry challenge: finding enough test-design experts, known as psychometricians, to create tests for each state. Companies frequently raid one another for talent.

"We are seeing psychometrican musical chairs," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Massachusetts.

In a 2006 report on the industry, Toch wrote: "Psychometrics is a highly technical, mathematics-based discipline that doesn't pay particularly well by private-sector standards (about $120,000 a year in top industry slots and much less in state testing agencies)." He said education majors are discouraged from entering the field by their professors, "many of whom are opposed to the rise of standardized testing in public education."

Critics of the federal law point to technical difficulties as a reason to scale back testing mandates. Sue Allison of Marylanders Against High-Stakes Testing said reports of testing breakdowns across the country are numerous. Mickey VanDerwerker of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs said one way to reduce testing would be to sample students to gauge progress in a school or school system.

"You don't need to test every kid every year in every grade," Schaeffer said. "Testing is not going to go away, but you can do it much less frequently and get the information that you need for accountability."

But supporters of the federal law say universal testing is inherent in the goal of leaving no child behind.

Testing company executives say their industry is up to the challenge.

Douglas Kubach, president and chief executive of Pearson, said his company is working to build capacity for the mounting test load. "Over the past five years, Pearson has invested more than $100 million in research and development, innovation, quality and process improvement in our U.S. assessment and testing business," he said through spokesman Hakensen. "We have added capacity, expanding our scoring operations at 30 facilities in 15 states."

John Oswald, senior vice president for elementary and secondary education at Educational Testing Service, said: "We do not see any evidence of too heavy a burden on the testing companies." Mostafa Mehrabani, president of McGraw-Hill Assessment and Reporting, said: "As the industry continues to move toward digital delivery, there will be a number of benefits and efficiencies."

Staff writer Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report.

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