State loses TAKS chief to firm that produces test; Rules will keep her from working on Texas issues until 2010

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The state official in charge of the TAKS test has a new employer: the company that produces the test.

Lisa Chandler, the Texas Education Agency’s director of assessment, will join the testing giant Pearson on March 5. She resigned from her state position Dec. 29, saying only that she was considering several job offers in the private sector.

TEA’s contract with Pearson – a five-year, $279 million deal signed in 2005 – puts limits on any agency employees who move to the company. The contract bans them from working on Texas-related matters for 12 months after the switch. A separate state ethics rule would prevent Ms. Chandler from working on the TEA contract until it is up for renewal in 2010.

Ms. Chandler could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Ms. Chandler has been Pearson’s main contact at the agency since she became assessment director in 2003. She has worked at the agency in a variety of roles since 1986. Her search for private employment had been the subject of rumors at the agency for some time.

“We are thrilled to have someone with 20 years of experience in education assessment and public policy join our organization,” Pearson spokesman David Hakensen wrote in an e-mailed statement. Ms. Chandler will be a “national measurement consultant” for the company, which has major testing contracts with a number of states.

In recent years, shifting to the private sector has become an increasingly popular career move for public education officials. The growth of standards-based reform has created huge, profitable markets – both in the administration of standardized tests and in the sale of curricula and tutoring, test-preparation and other services to schools.

When superintendents or other top officials leave for the private sector, their new employers sometimes end up pitching products to their former employers.

“It’s like when Pentagon officials go to work for defense contractors, or congressmen become lobbyists,” said Kenneth Strike, a professor of cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University, who has written numerous books about education ethics. “It raises a series of questions about past and present conflicts of interest.”

Pearson handles nearly all aspects of state testing in Texas, including writing the questions, distributing the test booklets and grading the results. The company handles the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, as well as other assessments for special education students, those with limited English proficiency and others.

Mr. Hakensen, the Pearson spokesman, said he would “defer any additional details” about Ms. Chandler’s role until she joined the company in March.

Dr. Strike said that simply moving to a state vendor is not, by itself, unethical. Instead, he said Ms. Chandler should be judged by her behavior, both at the agency and in her new position. He said the rules delaying work on Texas contracts should go a long way toward alleviating conflict-of-interest concerns.

“I would not be ethically outraged so long as a person conscientiously followed the rules,” he said. “You can’t tell people they can’t work for a living.”

Ms. Chandler oversaw the tail end of the transition from the older, easier TAAS test to the TAKS. That significant shift was managed without any major public hiccups.

But her time at the agency was not without controversy. It was on her watch that concerns arose about cheating on the TAKS, beginning with TEA’s investigation that found rampant cheating in the since-closed Wilmer-Hutchins school district.

Ms. Chandler has coordinated a large portion of the agency’s response to the concerns, including the hiring of the Utah test-security firm Caveon to analyze 2005 TAKS scores and look for cheating. Caveon found suspicious scores at 700 Texas schools.

The agency has changed its response to Caveon’s findings a number of times – first saying it would not investigate the findings, then later deciding it would. TEA waited months to act on the report, drawing criticism that the delays made thorough investigations much harder. The agency has cleared about 600 of the schools, with the remainder still outstanding.

In a written statement, Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley praised Ms. Chandler as “one of the leading experts in managing a state-level student assessment program.” The agency will conduct a national search for her replacement.