Agency trademarks TAKS, tests moneymaking waters with TAKS

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Eagle-eyed visitors to the Texas Education Agency’s Web site may have noticed a recent change.

The state’s standardized test is no longer just the TAKS. It’s the TAKS(tm).

Trademarking its flagship test is the state’s first step toward turning it into a commodity, sellable to schools in other states. It cost millions for Texas to develop the TAKS, or Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills ? now it wants to recoup some of that money.

“We are taking a more aggressive approach to protecting our intellectual property,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, an agency spokeswoman.

For several years, the agency has put old versions of TAKS and its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, on its Web site, where they’re available for easy download. A teacher in another state could simply print a copy of the TAAS and use it.

In December, Manuel Rodriguez, superintendent of public schools in Roswell, N.M., did just that. He was looking for a new way to see how his district’s 9,300 students were performing. An Odessa native who used to work in the Houston schools, Dr. Rodriguez was familiar with the TAAS. So his schools downloaded tests from the TEA Web site and gave them to students.

“We wanted an external benchmark to compare our kids against,” he said.

But a Roswell resident tipped off TEA, which sent its lawyers after Dr. Rodriguez. They told him he was violating the state’s copyright. He agreed not to give the TAAS again.

Dr. Rodriguez argued that he’d done nothing wrong, because the only restriction listed on the TEA Web site when he visited it was a ban on using the TAAS for “commercial purposes.” But that changed when new language went up on the site this month.

State policy still allows Texas public schools to use the TAKS and TAAS without restriction. But private companies in Texas ? and anyone out of state, public or private ? must get written approval from TEA before using or republishing any portion of the tests. That approval “may involve the payment of a licensing fee or a royalty fee,” the Web site says.

TEA officials said the fees have not been set. Dealing with serious budget cuts, TEA is happy to find whatever revenue it can. The state’s testing program ? developing, printing, distributing, grading ? costs about $50 million a year.

The move may be unprecedented.

“This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a state with its own custom-built assessment has decided to be a test vendor,” said John Olson, director of assessments for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In one way, the timing couldn’t be better for Texas. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into federal law last year, requires all 50 states to give tests at seven grade levels in reading and math by 2006. Science tests follow two years later.

Texas is one of the few states that already have all of those tests in place. Other states are scrambling to write their own tests or buy them from testing companies.

A tough sell?

But persuading an entire state to adopt the TAKS or TAAS ? and by extension the Texas curriculum on which they’re based ? could be difficult. Most have their own state curriculum in place and are likely to build or buy tests that are closely aligned with what’s taught in their classrooms.
“States are very protective of their own curriculum and their own standards,” said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit policy group based in Denver. “They don’t want to say that our standards are the same as some other states, even if they are pretty close.”

Texas might have better luck with people such as Dr. Rodriguez ? superintendents, principals or even teachers looking for a diagnostic test to see how students are doing. Almost all TAAS questions are multiple-choice, which could make them quick to grade and attractive to schools.

“Districts and schools and states use that sort of test all the time,” Ms. Christie said. “Certainly, there’s a huge market out there for diagnostic assessments.”

Texas has gone down this route before, with the Texas Primary Reading Inventory. The early-literacy test is given to students in grades K-2, and it has been acclaimed by researchers for identifying weaknesses in a child’s reading skills.

Not long after TEA built the test in 1997, it started getting requests from schools around the country. At first, the test materials were sold at cost. But sensing a potential market, officials raised the prices. Now, a classroom’s worth of TPRI materials is available for purchase online for $225. It has generated more than $70,000 in profits for TEA in the last two years.

“It’s a hot property,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Texas now actively markets the TPRI with ads in trade publications. Ms. Ratcliffe said the agency didn’t have any immediate plans to market TAKS or TAAS similarly.

Dr. Rodriguez, the Roswell superintendent, said he wouldn’t be willing to pay to use the TAAS or TAKS in his schools. But he understands TEA’s decision.

“I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “I’m a Texan at heart. They have all rights to protect their properties.”