There’s a reason hundreds of parents and kids held a protest outside 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 amiss when standardized tests fail to make the grade, 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 adviser Sandy Kress, a Democratic lawyer from Dallas with some school board experience, convinced him that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” was holding back minority students in failing schools. His solution: if Texas made all schools give the same tests, the state 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.” And once the Texas governor ascended to the Oval Office, Kress lobbied Sen. Ted Kennedy to add bipartisan legitimacy to the plan as Bush’s top Democratic supporter for the No Child Left Behind law, which promised to spread the Texas Miracle to the other 49 states. The law projected victory by 2014 in getting all students to “meet or exceed the state’s proficient level of academic achievement on the state assessments.”
Education researchers worried that making test scores the single indicator of success was about as smart as Enron making the stock price the only measure of prosperity. Education researchers saw parallels with the bankrupt energy corporation in how schools would “off-shore” the kids likely to fail tests by holding them back grade levels. 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 for prospective college students 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 overall 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 ten 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. “Over the last ten 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.”
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. 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 superintendents began to count up the days testing took out of the 180-day school year.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry made high-stakes testing an issue during his 2006 re-election, but the political class saw that accountability scored high in opinion polls. Perry appointed a committee to study the problem to death. He assigned Kress for the job to protect the status quo, but teachers and education researchers pushed the 2009 legislature to the brink of killing the standardized testing. When the state House and Senate passed a bill that would cut at the backbone of high-stakes testing, Perry threatened to 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. Pearson got a new $468-million contract to write and administer all these new tests.
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. By the time Perry’s own education chief, Robert Scott, called high-stakes testing a “perversion” of accountability, Texas legislators knew they had to dial it back.
It’s too soon to say whether a near-unanimity of opposition to high-stakes testing from school boards, superintendents, 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.