National testing vendor isn’t the solution to HISD’s special education crisis.

Less than a week ago, the administration of Houston ISD named American Institutes of Research (AIR) as the recommended firm to conduct an audit of its special education program. 

The audit comes as a slow response to the Denied series of articles which were first published by the Houston Chronicle last September revealing that the State of Texas and Houston ISD were actively suppressing the identification of special education students. Advocates have been asking for the Board to conduct an independent audit of the district’s practices in order to gain a full understanding of all the problems related to special education since December.

When parents urged the board to act, they pleaded with the board to make the audit separate from administration. High ranking administrators, including Superintendent Richard Carranza, made statements that were defensive in nature and denied certain obvious problems existed and took several months to remove the Assistant Superintendent of Special Education

Now, the name of that firm has been released and those fears of an administration-driven process have come true. 

Who is American Institutes of Research? 

A testing company.

From their website: “AIR offers a full range of student assessment services, collaborating with state, district, and international clients to develop and deploy the most effective and efficient assessment programs.”

They are a TESTING company. They’re a competitor to Pearson and Educational Testing Service (think STAAR, GRE, etc).

Under the research and evaluation policy heading on their site, they even have “Value-Added and Student Growth Measures” listed as an area of expertise. They’ll not only design an assessment for you but conduct analysis on the effectiveness of the people that surround it. This is the exact type of VAMS model that HISD trustees recently moved away from using for teachers and principals with regard to STAAR.

This also means they sell products to special education departments.

AIR is also a large organization with over 1,800 employees. Two major websites that offer reviews of employers show AIR with very poor ratings.. There are 267 reviews on, with an average employer rating of 2.8 out of 5. Scrolling through the reviews, the refrain seems to be that they over work and under pay their employees and have shady upper management goals. Here is an excerpt from one review:

“Increasingly poor work-life balance, staff are expected to put in non-billable hours on projects, management is unresponsive to requests for advice on advancement and development. There is a hidden CYA mentality among mid-level management that speaks volumes about upper management and their goals.”

The website also offers reviews of employers and has similarly bad reviews from former employees. 

Looking at AIR in the context of their industry, it turns out they appear to be most well known for their assessment services. 

In this paid public relations piece in the Washington Post, AIR says...

“provide(s) a full range of testing services, including test development, online and paper-based services, and scoring and reporting. We use artificial intelligence to score questions and overall tests automatically, and we do it using a Web-based system. This offers a significant cost and logistical advantage, since it does not require any hardware in the schools except for the computers on which the students test.”

How will AIR’s innovation focus on saving money and advancing technology be applied to HISD’s special education problem?

AIR has provided state assessment services (i.e. STAAR-like tests) in the following states: Delaware, Hawaii, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah.

Here are some articles about their experience in the testing market…


…relating to AIR alleging unfair RFP practices in New Mexico when they were competing with assessment heavyweight Pearson:

…relating to its failures in Minnesota, where its contract was non-renewed:

…a lengthy article about their bungled online FCAT (Florida’s state test) rollout:

…settling a lawsuit in Florida for their mistakes, similar to ETS in Texas last year:

So, they’re are a large player in the assessment industry. What does this tell us? 

From a testing company’s perspective, the solution to under-identification will surely be more testing. It is highly likely that AIR’s analysis will begin the assumption that evaluation is this problem and that the solution will likely be more and different assessments—for which they could conveniently provide. 

Seven years ago, when HISD undertook a similar analysis, they hired a Harvard professor and former U.S. Department of Education Director of Special Education. This time? A testing company.

Wrong Questions. Wrong Answers.

If the board had heard the stories of the parents profiled by The Houston Chronicle, heard the parents at the Department of Education listening sessions, or heard the parents at HISD’s own special education town hall last week, they would know that the questions that need to be asked are ones of operational and legal breakdowns. Parent after parent after parent tells the stories of HISD failing to even agree to evaluate their children. The problem isn’t the evaluation, it’s the administrators and the budget constraints and the processes that stand between the parents that know their children have needs and the highly-trained professionals that assess and intervene.

The board—which doesn’t have expertise in this area—needs to hire a firm or firms to

  1. insert independence from the administration in gaining knowledge of the problem, and
  2. insert knowledge and experience at rooting out breakdowns in
    • operational processes,
    • oversights and failures in appropriate budgeting and
    • gaps in the legal compliance of administrators at all levels.

Just like the board hires an independent accounting or managerial consulting firm to audit financial controls, technology security and other sensitive operations, so, too, should the board hire one for special education. And it may be that the district needs two firms—one for the operational audit and another for the legal/compliance one. Furthermore, the firm or firms being hired should work for the board and not be a potential vendor for future services to the administration.

Failure. Fault. Solution.

Thus far, this special education crisis has been a failure of the administration. That same administration just picked this vendor. 

If the board authorizes this contract and expects to rely on the output of this vendor as a material part of its response, the board will be a part of the problem rather than the beginning of the solution.

I suggest that the board table this vote, finish listening to parents, and then work out how, who and what will give them the independent information the need to put new policy and new expectations for the administration in place to end the crisis.