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 four tests previously required for graduation with fifteen—more than any other state. Lawmakers also mandated that the new tests, known as end-of-course exams, would count for 15 percent of a student’s grade in each subject area. Further, kids who didn’t score high enough on the Algebra II and English III tests wouldn’t be eligible to attend any of the state’s public four-year universities. For middle-class parents, testing was suddenly more than just a nuisance—it was a threat to their children’s future.

If there was any doubt that testing advocates would be playing defense in the 2013 legislative session, it did not last past the first day, when Speaker of the House Joe Straus delivered his opening address. “The goal of education is not to teach children how to pass a test but to prepare them for life,” he said, adding, “To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing, the Texas House has heard you.”

A considerable number of angry mothers—and quite a few well-spoken kids—descended on the Capitol in February for a series of hearings on high-stakes testing convened by Dan Patrick, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Education. The February 19 hearing quickly turned into the morning of the long knives for testing advocates, including Walter Sherwood, an executive from Pearson, the world’s largest education company, which holds the state’s current five-year, $468 million testing contract. In the overflowing hearing room, Patrick wanted to know why kids had done so poorly on the first round of STAAR tests, taken last spring, when Pearson had promised that the questions would be tailored to the state curriculum. Failure rates for the En­glish I writing and reading tests were 45 percent and 32 percent, respectively. “Either the teachers and the schools are doing a poor job of teaching the curriculum or you all are incorrect that these tests are accurate tests,” Patrick said. “Which is it?”

Never mind that Patrick had been a key player in the creation of the new tests, back in 2009. The political landscape has shifted considerably since then. At a national meeting of school administrators in January 2012, then–Texas education commissioner Robert Scott, who had been a staunch defender of testing, shocked the establishment when he said testing had become “a perversion of its original intent.” Tom Pauken, then the chair of the Texas Workforce Commission and a former head of the Texas Republican Party, piled on with a series of opinion pieces in which he referred to a “cult of educational testing” and argued that the accountability system was doing more harm than good. After nearly twenty years of high-stakes testing in Texas, Pauken and others pointed out, scores on the SAT hadn’t improved. A resolution opposing high-stakes testing has now been signed by more than 80 percent of the school

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week