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?

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

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