The Big Test
Robert Scott spent his final months as the commissioner of education trying to end the state’s reliance on high-stakes standardized exams. Did he pass or fail?
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Last January, at the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) midwinter conference, education commissioner Robert Scott strode to the stage to give a presentation about student performance. A trim man with a youthful face and short blond hair, he did not begin his remarks with the kind of cheerleading that the audience had come to expect from previous meetings. “I’m going to try to do things a little bit differently this year,” he said. There was a weary tone to his remarks, which sounded almost like an apologia.
“I’m going to start with this book I’ve been reading, Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, written by Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly, which details the involvement of the federal government in education. As I read through this book, I was actually asked to provide a quote for the back cover. Here’s what I wrote: ‘Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit is a must-read for any lawmaker who wants to understand the history of federal education policy and its implementation for our schools as well as for any teachers who wonder why the classroom they entered with such optimism and hope has become so mired in paperwork and bureaucracy.’ You may sense the sarcasm in that quote, and you may think it was directed at the authors. It was not. It was frustration with myself and the complicity that I had in creating this system and the system we have in the state of Texas.”
The hall fell silent, but Scott had more to say. “I believe that testing is good for some things, but the system that we have created has become a perversion of its original intent, the intent to improve teaching and learning. The intent to improve teaching and learning has gone too far afield, and I look forward to reeling it back in.”
It was a stunning admission. Scott, after all, had been appointed to his post, in 2007, by Governor Rick Perry, who is a staunch supporter of the state’s accountability system, which rates the performance of schools by using standardized tests. Scott had worked at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) since 1994 and had agreed with the policy of standardized testing when he became commissioner. But the speech was immediately recognized by the audience for what it was: an abrupt departure from Perry’s vision for accountability.
The previous week, while addressing a meeting of the State Board of Education, Scott had declared that testing had become the “end all, be all,” going so far as to say, “You’ve now reached the point of having this one thing that the entire system is dependent on. It’s the heart of the vampire, so to speak.” Having already suggested that standardized tests are sucking the lifeblood from public education—and from teachers and students as well—Scott placed some of the blame on himself in front of four thousand educators whose jobs depended upon his leadership.
Not surprisingly, Scott’s remarks gained national attention, adding fuel to the debate over the most important educational issue of our time: the conflict between achievement and accountability at our institutions of public education. Achievement can be measured by standardized tests, but what remains elusive is whether those tests, and the method of preparing for them, produce actual learning or just rote memorization and repetition, a process derisively called “drill and kill.” In 1995 Texas had become one of the first states to embrace accountability, under the leadership of Governor George W. Bush, and as president he passed the educational reform law known as No Child Left Behind. Now the state appeared to be stepping away from its testing regime, in which as many as 45 days of a 180-day school year—the actual figure for high school students in the Wichita Falls district in 2011–2012—were reserved for taking standardized tests or practicing for them.
What did come as a surprise was that, less than four months later, Scott announced that he would step down in July. Powerful forces were aligned against him and his determination to reduce the reliance on high-stakes testing—none more so than the state’s business community, which depends upon the public schools for its future workforce. The main voice of business in the state is the Texas Association of Business and its president and chief executive officer, Bill Hammond, who has taken an active role in influencing educational policy over the years. He and Scott have clashed on several occasions, and Hammond has dismissed the commissioner as a “cheerleader for mediocrity.”
What business leaders want to be sure of is that Texas schools are, in fact, preparing their students for the future. Hammond believes that the best way to measure academic achievement is to maintain a rigorous accountability system, which measures student and campus progress according to their scores on standardized tests. Campuses are then rated “exemplary,” “recognized,” “academically acceptable,” and “academically unacceptable,” and these ratings become the school’s report cards. TAB’s official position on accountability is unwavering: “Oppose any measures that weaken the current education accountability system.”
Despite this support, a revolt against testing had been brewing even before Scott spoke his mind. Some 550 school districts, representing more than 3.4 million students, have adopted a version of an initiative by TASA titled “Resolution Concerning High-Stakes Standardized Testing of Texas Public School Students.” And at the State Board of Education meeting in January, Scott called the assessment and accountability business “not only a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex.” Indeed, testing now costs the state $100 million a year.
Still, Scott believes that in some instances the testing regime has been improved by the Legislature over the past few years. Instead of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), which focused on a broad range of academic skills in ninth through eleventh grade, high school students will now take end-of-course exams in required subjects like biology and math. This approach doesn’t entirely eliminate the oft-criticized sin of “teaching to the test,” but at least it addresses whether students have mastered the material actually taught in the course. These new tests, which are known by the acronym STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), will also be more rigorous than the TAKS test. But the amount of testing continues to grow. High school students will eventually be required to pass twelve standardized tests to graduate from high school and qualify for admission to a four-year university. And given the preliminary round of scores that was released in June, in which half of all freshmen failed, those are high stakes indeed. These are the kinds of results that make parents and teachers very nervous—and loathe the culture of testing.
On the morning of July 2, I went to the TEA’s headquarters to meet with Scott on his final day as commissioner. He was relaxed, sitting casually on a sofa. I asked him how much damage had been done by the $5.4 billion in budget cuts imposed by the 2011 session. “The system can function as it is right now,” he said. “It was challenged but not broken. But our school-age population is growing. How much longer can the system be asked to do more with less until you impact the schools’ ability to do their jobs?”
He told me that at a Senate hearing last year, he had been asked, “What would you add back if you had the money?”
“I felt like I was being asked, ‘Do you want your heart or your lungs?’ ” he said.
More than anything, he lamented how the importance of public education had changed over the past decade. “Article three [which addresses education funding in the state budget] was always a priority,” he said, leaving unsaid the obvious—that this is no longer the case.
Now that Scott’s tenure has come to an end, a question mark hangs over the future of public education in Texas. The school system is embroiled in yet another round of school finance lawsuits that will take years to resolve. Many of the key figures who have directed education policy in recent years are leaving politics, including Scott Hochberg, the House member with the best understanding of school finance; Florence Shapiro, chair of the Senate Education Committee; and Rob Eissler, chair of the House Public Education Committee. With his criticism of standardized tests and the anti-testing resolution that is making the rounds of school districts in Texas, Scott has started a conversation that may change many people’s minds about testing. But did his conversion come too late to make a difference?
It seems unlikely that the Legislature will abandon the accountability system anytime soon given the pressure it is under from groups like the business community. Yet Scott senses a change in the air, from administrators who have long been skeptical of the accountability culture and from parents who are increasingly convinced that the tests don’t serve their children’s best interests. “I believe that during the next legislative session there will be a backlash,” he told me. I think he’s right.