Is Texas Ending High-Stakes Testing?

There's a reason hundreds of parents and kids protested at the New York City headquarters of the standardized testing company Pearson last year, and it wasn't just because of the infamous "Pineapple" test question. There's a reason that a Florida school board member with a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees made national news when he flunked his state's 10th-grade math test. There's a reason teachers in Seattle are refusing to administer the Washington state standardized test. Something is very wrong when it's the parents and teachers who are complaining about a test, and as much as I'd love to, I can't blame it on what George W. Bush did as president.

It's actually what George W. Bush did as Texas governor. Bush's education advisor, a Democratic lawyer from Dallas named Sandy Kress with some school board experience, convinced him that the "soft bigotry of low expectations" was leaving black and brown kids behind in failing schools. And that if Texas made all schools give the same tests, we could direct resources where they would do the most good, and eventually African-American and Hispanic kids would catch up to the white kids. It was a great theory, and initially the scores rose.

Bush called it the Texas Miracle. This is what he was talking about during the 2000 Republican primary when he said, "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" Kress lobbied Sen. Ted Kennedy, who became Bush's top Democratic supporter for the No Child Left Behind law that promised to spread the Texas miracle to the other 49 states. By 2014, the law stated, "All students... will meet or exceed the State's proficient level of academic achievement on the State assessments."

Bush and Kress might as have said we'll all be rich and skinny. Education researchers worried that making test scores the single indicator of success was about as smart as Enron making the stock price (and not debt ratios, cash balances, or profits) the only measure of prosperity. Education researchers saw parallels with the bankrupt energy giant in how schools would "off-shore" the kids likely to fail tests by holding them back. Texas started to lose 70,000 kids a year, most dropping out before they had to take the 10th-grade tests that would count against the school. Almost a third of kids in Texas who started high school never finished.

Scores on the Texas test rose, but SAT scores dropped. Researchers discovered that the Texas tests designed by Pearson primarily measured test-taking ability. Apologists cherry picked National Assessment of Educational Progress scores to show progress, but over all Texas lost ground to the rest of the country, found Dr. Julian V. Heilig, an education researcher at the University of Texas, but by then it was too late. The Texas Miracle, mirage or not, was the law of the land.

"The reason why we're seeing, well, what we're seeing, after 10 years of No Child Left Behind is the fact that we didn't close the gaps, the fact that our graduation rates haven't gone anywhere, our dropout rates haven't improved because Texas never did that in the 1990s," said Heilig. "Accountability had never delivered that. It had never done it. And that's why over the last 10 years now that we have Texas-style accountability and policy in the whole United States, the reason why it didn't deliver is because it never delivered in Texas then."

By the time Kress had become a lawyer-lobbyist for testing giant Pearson, Texas was seeing the beginnings of an uprising against the dogma of accountability-by-assessment. High-stakes testing became an issue in Perry's 2006 re-election, but the political class saw that accountability scored high in opinion polls. The insiders didn't know what to make of the resistance to testing. Parents complained about "teaching to the test." Teachers began to complain openly about being forced to take time out of music or art to drill for the upcoming math test, and superintendants began to count up the days testing took out of the 180-day school year. Terry Grier, the superintendant of Houston's school district, discovered that his schools gave up 65 days a year to tests. "That drives me crazy," said Grier. "I do think we assess way too much in Texas.

In 2007, Rep. Carl Isett, a Lubbock Republican, was called into active duty by his Naval Reserve unit. His wife Cheri took his place in the statehouse while he was away and is best remembered for surprising her colleagues with a speech against high-stakes testing on the House floor: "These children were created by God to be unique individuals with unique gifts and talents. They are aching to break free from the tyranny of standardized tests and curriculum scope and sequence and express those gifts and talents. But we have legislated them out."

Perry appointed a committee to study the problem to death. He put Kress on it to protect the status quo, but teachers and education researchers pushed the 2009 legislature to the brink of killing high-stakes testing. As passed by the House and Senate, House Bill 3 would have ended high-stakes testing in elementary and middle schools and only required high school students to pass two tests to graduate. But when the bill went to conference committee, Perry threatened a veto unless the legislation doubled down on accountability. Kids in elementary school and middle school would be required to pass tests -- or else. To get out of high school they'd have to pass not two, but 15 tests including Algebra II. And to write and administer all these new tests, Pearson got a new $468-million contract.

(By the way, the lead House and Senate negotiators on HB 3 have since left the legislature. The Senate sponsor, Florence Shapiro, is now with a Dallas company that helps public colleges offer online classes, a pet project of Perry's. And the House sponsor, Rob Eissler, is now lobbying for Pearson.)

In a world of Astroturf politics and manufactured outrage, the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test, sparked a sincere grassroots rebellion. Upper-middle class moms formed a group they called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment but that lawmakers took to calling "Mothers Against Drunk Testing" for the ferocity of their lobbying against the STAAR test. As of last month, 86 percent of Texas school boards representing 91 percent of the state's 5 million public school students had adopted resolutions opposing high-stakes testing. The superintendant of El Paso went to federal prison for inflating his district's test scores by getting at-risk kids to drop out -- though Perry had given him bonuses and called him a model for the rest of the state.

By the time Perry's own education chief, Robert Scott, called high-stakes testing a "perversion" of accountability, Texas legislatures knew they had to dial it back. Already lawmakers have introduced several bills to lower the stakes for accountability, and on Tuesday the House Education Committee will hold a hearing on bills that promise to turn down the heat on students, including a bill by San Antonio Democratic state Rep. Mike Villarreal.

"Our testing program has become a high stakes system hostile to students and educators," said Villarreal. "I believe that we must hold schools accountable, but we've lost our way by emphasizing testing above all else."

Of course Villarreal was on the 2009 conference committee for HB 3 that acquiesced to Perry's veto threat, and Perry is still governor. It's too soon to say whether a near-unanimity of opposition to high-stakes testing from school boards, superintendants, parents and education researchers will succeed against Perry and Pearson, but there's a better chance than ever that the false education doctrine that Bush started in Texas and then spread across the country will finally meet its end in the same building where it started.

Credit on the research into what happened to HB 3 in 2009 goes to Dr. Patricia Lopez of the Texas Center for Education Policy at the University of Texas. That portion of this post drew heavily from her May 2012 dissertation, "The Process of Becoming: The Political Construction of Texas' Lone STAAR System of Accountability and College Readiness."