Crash Test

Two decades ago Texas became ground zero for the accountability movement in public education. Now, after a revolt by teachers and parents who claim that High-stakes testing is ruining classroom instruction, the Legislature is poised to undo many of its own reforms. Does anyone have the right answer?
Photo illustration by Darren Braun

During his first run for the White House, George W. Bush called it the Texas Miracle. High-stakes testing in the public schools, along with other measures meant to hold teachers and principals “accountable” for the performance of their students, had closed the achievement gap between Anglo and minority students and boosted overall scores in reading and math. On the campaign trail, Bush touted the reforms—first passed by the Legislature in 1993, a year before he was elected governor—as a blueprint for the nation. And indeed, just a year after he arrived in Washington, the Texas model went nationwide when Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law, in January 2002, requiring all states to create their own testing programs. At the signing ceremony, Bush singled out Rod Paige, his secretary of education, whose success as the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District had provided the inspiration for the accountability movement in Texas.

After eleven years of this unprecedented experiment in American pedagogy, during which time student assessment grew into a $1.7 billion industry dominated by a handful of corporations, nobody is talking about miracles anymore. Not in Washington, where the Obama administration has been forced to grant waiver after waiver as NCLB’s ambitious 2014 deadline for states to reach “100 percent proficiency” in math and reading approaches. (In 2011, 48 percent of the nation’s schools failed to meet the law’s benchmarks.) And certainly not in Texas, where the Houston school district’s putative academic successes, including its astonishingly low dropout rate, have been debunked as statistical chicanery. Across the state, a long-simmering anti-testing movement has finally exploded into a full-fledged revolt. And it hasn’t happened only among teachers and administrators, who have argued for years that testing takes up too much time and energy. It has flared up in the demographic that animates public policy more than any other: suburban parents.

There was a time, difficult to remember today, when standardized testing meant putting aside class work for a single afternoon to take something like the California Achievement Test, which measured how well kids performed in math and reading in comparison with their peers around the country. Such tests were used as diagnostic tools, and there were no particular consequences for failing to do well. Those days are long gone. The accountability system Bush championed has continued to evolve, and the number and complexity of the tests have increased with each new legislative overhaul. Students in Texas are now tested a total of seventeen times in grades three through eight, and they must pass reading and math exams in grades three, five, and eight—or risk being held back. Schools that don’t perform well are subject to sanction by the state, including the dismissal of staff. Campuses that consistently lag behind can even be closed, a fate that befell Johnston High School, in Austin, and Sam Houston High School, in Houston, in 2008.

But it was the new requirements for high school students in the latest iteration of the tests, known as STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), that really set the woods on fire. Created by the Legislature during the 2007 and 2009 sessions and implemented last spring, STAAR replaced the

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