In Birthplace of High-stakes Testing, Lawmakers Turn on Its Godfather

If there's one person in America who's responsible for your child stressing about filling in the right little ovals with a No. 2 pencil, it's Sandy Kress, the "key architect of No Child Left Behind" who later became a lobbyist for Pearson, the testing company. As high-stakes testing faces a national backlash, lawmakers in Texas -- the birthplace of high-stakes standardized testing -- aren't just dialing back the state's emphasis on tests but are also turning their guns on Kress to limit his policy-making role.

The Atlanta testing scandal in which the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year was indicted for racketeering has prompted questions about whether corruption in the classroom is an inevitable result of making test scores the primary focus of public schools. "Tragically, the Atlanta cheating scandal harmed our children and it crystallizes the unintended consequences of our test-crazed policies," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Opposition to high-stakes testing is popping up nationwide. In Seattle, teachers protested what they saw as the inequity of the Washington state test by refusing to administer it, sparking a copycat strike at dozens of high schools in nearby Portland. In Providence, 50 high school students outraged that their diplomas required them to pass standardized tests, dressed up like zombies and marched through the downtown rush hour chanting "No education, no life." Even Bill Gates, long a proponent of education accountability, recently penned a Washington Post op-ed opposing the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.

But nowhere is the movement against high-stakes testing as strong as it is in Texas where all this started. Now, 86 percent of the state's school boards have adopted resolutions opposing the over-reliance on high-stakes testing. Rick Perry's last education commissioner called testing a "perversion of what is intended." Volunteer moms, angry that a new testing regime forced their children to pass 15 standardized tests to get out of high school, lobbied the legislature with such vehemence that politicians began calling them "Mothers Against Drunk Testing." The defenders of the testing status quo are now down to two: Kress, and Bill Hammond, a top business lobbyist who heads an organization that Pearson is a member of.

Kress advised Bush as governor, and when Bush became president, Kress -- as a former Democratic Party official in Dallas -- lobbied Ted Kennedy to support NCLB. He enjoyed a smooth transition into lobbying and has enjoyed an insider role in Perry's administration, serving on state advisory boards and commissions that invariably found that the way to improve schools was more testing. Few seemed to mind his dual role as education adviser and Pearson lobbyist. It never caused a stir when Kress would testify before the legislature as a member of the state advisory panels in favor of more testing, leaving his status as a lobbyist for the testing company unstated. And with Kress advising Texas politicians to up the ante on testing, Pearson won increasingly large contracts that ended up totaling $980 million.

Now there's a growing sense that testing has gotten out of control. The latest test was so tough that 27 percent of Texas' entire ninth grade failed both the tests and the retakes and now can't graduate high school. A recent poll commissioned by a teachers union found that when it comes to improving public schools, support for reducing the emphasis on standardized testing ranked higher than raising teacher pay and restoring budget cuts.

The backlash has now reached the chamber where this all started. When the Texas House passed a testing relief bill, lawmakers included two amendments aimed at Kress. Texas lawmakers, who have never exactly held business lobbyists at arm's length, have had enough of Kress pretending he doesn't have a conflict of interest while advocating unpopular policies that enrich his client. One amendment would ban testing lobbyists from serving on state education advisory boards, cutting to the heart of Kress' ability to lobby from the inside. Another amendment would make it a misdemeanor for a testing lobbyist to make political contributions. When politicians make it a crime to give them money, something's up.

Gene Sheets, the superintendent of the Muleshoe Independent School District, serves on a state advisory committee with Kress. Sheets was surprised but supportive when told of the amendment that would bar Kress from serving on the committee. "I'm in favor of that amendment," said Sheets, measuring his words carefully. "I don't think there needs to be any appearance of a conflict of interest in the education of our children.

Rep. Joe Deshotel, who authored one of the amendments, says it's nothing personal. "For what it's worth, I have never met Sandy Kress. I certainly have heard his name but would not know him if he were standing in front of me now," said Deshotel. "However, just in principle I don't think those that design the test and sell it to the state should sit on committees that have a direct impact on their product sales."

Only congress can repeal No Child Left Behind, but Bush passed it by selling the notion that the tests worked in Texas when he was governor. Texas no longer believes in its own miracle, and the architect of this mess has lost his influence. Nobody's buying what Sandy Kress is selling anymore.