Texas test pushers pushed back

September 12, 2013

Cindy Beringer reports on the fight against the high-stakes testing mania in Texas.

THE ABSURDITY of high-stakes testing was thrown into sharp relief in Texas when legislators--who are heavily embedded with the Pearson testing company's lobbying machine and in the pockets of the Texas Business Association and Chamber of Commerce--nevertheless reduced the number of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests students are required to pass for Texas high school graduation from fifteen to five.

This is an example of an unworkable testing frenzy, despised by students, parents and teachers across the state, collapsing under the weight of its contradictions. But lawmakers who were stirred to action at the end of the legislative session did their best to save Pearson profits and the agenda of the education deformers.

STAAR is Texas' latest attempt to perpetually measure students in the most miserable way possible. While students and teachers are breathing a great sigh of relief that students will only have to take, prepare for, and have their future determined by merely five mind-numbingly boring tests, this is only part of the plan for Texas students coming out of the current legislature.

Former Education Secretary Rod Paige
Former Education Secretary Rod Paige

So how did the Texas education system get to this point? And how did the inarticulate "Decider," George W. Bush, take a school "reform" plan national and come close to destroying the U.S. education system as we know it?

THE HIGH-stakes testing mania grew out of the imagination of several self-described school "reformers" who recognized the enormous potential of public school funds in private hands.

At the time, then-Governor Bush was smitten with school reforms in Texas and hoped to make the "Texas Miracle" a model for the nation. He pointed to the alleged success of Rod Paige who, as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, claimed to have used an emphasis on basic skills and testing to reduce the achievement gap in schools with largely poor and non-white populations.

Paige, who later became President Bush's education secretary, referred to school reform as "the civil rights issue of our time."

In 2003, Paige's "miracle" fell apart under close scrutiny for his amazingly low dropout rates which, according to the New York Times, were the "educational equivalent of Enron's accounting results." Apparently, more than half of the 5,500 students who left the district in one year were not counted as dropouts. Other school reformers' miracles have fallen apart in similar fashion.

In 1995, the state passed a "reform" bill where the scores on state tests were used in a peculiar formula, with dropout and attendance rates in order to assign ratings to individual districts and campuses ranging from "exemplary" to "academically unacceptable." These ratings, and similar accountability systems across the nation, have come with a convoluted system of punishments and monetary rewards that have led some administrators and teachers into cheating scandals that range from the creative to the unbelievably stupid. Only a few cheaters have been punished.

The bill also required scores to be reported separately for minority, poor and disabled students. Disaggregated scores were used in campus ratings.

The 1995 reforms also established three different types of charter schools. Each had various degrees of exemption from state regulation to encourage "innovation," while the regulatory screws were tightening in the public schools.

George W. Bush went to Washington as the "education president" and nationalized the Texas model for the punishment of children with the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Other states were urged to create their own testing systems.

In 2003, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests, created in response to NCLB, ratcheted things up quite a bit. Students in grades 3-11 took tests in English language arts, science, math and social studies. Test scores for students in grades 3, 5, and 8 could be linked to graduation. High school juniors were required to pass tests in all four subjects in order to graduate.

Students who pass all their courses and fail one or more TAKS tests return to school many times to take the test again in the hope of finally getting the diploma they worked years for. Some will continue to take the TAKS retests for several years (even though TAKS is no longer used--instead, it's the STAAR test). Many give up after one or more tries, and eventually the old test fades away.

After a few years of TAKS, the Texas Association of Business, the Chamber of Commerce, and Pearson and its lobbyists wanted more "accountability"--and more profit. They had learned a new word--"rigor." Students' "academic rigor" level was not what was needed for today's jobs, or so they say.

THE STAAR test, perhaps the most sadistic testing system ever designed both in content and consequence, was implemented in the 2011-2012 school year, beginning with the freshman class. (Sophomores and juniors were to take TAKS until those two years phased out.)

Each year, freshmen, sophomores and juniors were to take five end-of-course exams in reading, writing, social studies, science and math. Not only was passing all of the tests required for a diploma, student performance on the tests would affect their ability to attend college, which colleges they could attend, and whether or not they could receive financial aid. Students who didn't score high enough on the Algebra II and English III exam couldn't attend any of the state's public four-year universities.

Additionally, the tests were to count as 15 percent of the student's final grade in each course. It was entirely possible, however, that a student could pass the course and fail the exam.

The STAAR, as first imagined by legislators, was doomed to fail. It had far too much control over a student's future, and schools faced the possibility that some students in their senior year would have to take 15 retests in the three or four times a year that the retests were given--and even several years after they had completed course work. Only Pearson could love this mad hamster wheel of testing.

Widespread opposition to the STAAR began almost as soon as the details of the requirements became known, before the 83rd legislative session began in January 2013. First under attack was the "15 percent of the final grade" rule. Wealthier parents, whose children would do well on the tests but whose admittance to the best universities might rest on a fraction of a hundredth of a grade point, objected. These parents, called "soccer moms" by the political class, had access and influence, and the 15 percent rule was suspended. It was dropped in the testing bill passed this year.

One fed-up mother of two elementary kids started Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests, part of a national opt-out movement that began two years prior. She and others have kept their kids home from school to engage in real learning experiences during testing and test prep. It's an act of civil disobedience that is growing.

Before the legislative session stated, more than 80 percent of the school boards in Texas signed a resolution against testing. Two large rallies were held at the beginning of the last two legislative sessions by the well-funded Save Our Schools coalition seeking public school funding and a reduction in testing. A reluctance to demand results outside the comfort zone of the political establishment was probably the reason why more gains were not made in education funding and in limiting testing.

OPPOSITION TO testing took up a large portion of the public comment section of the legislative session. Parents, teachers, students, and educational and child development professionals spoke eloquently and with expertise to the harm caused by high-stakes testing and its lack of validity as a measuring tool.

Many echoed the lessons learned by Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration and one of the foremost critics of school "reform" and testing today: "The first thing you say about high-stakes testing is that it's punitive. If you spend 12 years selecting one out of four bubbles you are crushing creativity, destroying critical thinking and inflicting harm on children. What's the alternative to crushing creativity and inflicting harm on children? Well, stop hurting children!"

The pro-testing "experts" were the legislators, the Pearson lobbyists, the Texas Association of Business and the Chamber of Commerce. The vast majority of these elites have little knowledge of what goes on in the public schools and send their children to private schools which are not required to test. They forge ahead with their plans despite the evidence because they do understand how to turn public money into personal gain.

There was a Pandora's box of bills related to testing that were floating about during the legislative session, The bill reducing the number of tests to five was passed and signed near the end. It became clear in watching the absurd discussion as the bills maneuvered through the chambers that there were three goals among the legislators: First, do no real harm to Pearson; second, give the angry mob enough to pacify them to go home and be quiet; third, do nothing to hinder their plan to use test scores to eventually privatize most of a racially and economically divided public school system.

The bill that passed also sets up a confusing tracking system forcing the student to select one of several new graduation plans that will affect their ability to go to college and receive financial aid, among other things. Students entering the ninth grade will have to indicate which path they choose in writing. A student can switch tracks at any time, but because of different course requirements, this might be close to impossible. Any teacher familiar with ninth and tenth graders knows that major decisions for their future are the last thing these students care about or should be making.

To show they had a sense of humor, the legislators added a provision in the bill that "certain" that contractors hired to develop or implement "assessment instruments" cannot make contributions to nor be involved in the campaigns of people running for or serving on the comedy show that is the State Board of Education.

Adding to an already very lengthy bill, legislators changed the current rating systems for schools and school districts to a standard letter grade system of A though F based on test scores, financial efficiency and several other factors listed under "community engagement" that are highly subjective. This will make it much easier to close schools and districts and farm them out to charter schools.

A bill to cut the number of tests from 17 to 15, the number required by NCLB, was vetoed by Governor Rick Perry. In addition, the state would have been required to prove the STAAR was valid and demanded that a committee be created to evaluate the work of the infamous State Board of Education. Too many booby traps for the testing lobby in this bill.

SO, THE nation can thank Texas for No Child Left Behind for putting public education on the path of the dinosaur (which, by the way, many members of the State Board of Education think walked the earth with humankind--and they want that in the textbooks). Obama, in typical fashion, criticized Bush's plan, promised to get rid of it, then kept it and put it on steroids with his own "Race to the Top" program.

In education and related areas, Texas has always ranked somewhere in the bottom five of the 50 states. A report by the Texas Legislative Study Group called "Texas on the Brink" lays out the bleakness of life in Texas, especially for children:

There is much more to the story of high-stakes testing than the immediate profits of the testing industry and the parasites that support it. Business leaders hope that students confined to years inside the confines of four answers on a bubble sheet will be compliant and undemanding workers in the low-wage, dead-end and often dangerous jobs in the stratified labor market the business community has in mind.

This plan is not working out so well, as workers from the fast food industry and Walmart take to the streets with a growing list of demands. The majority of these workers are former test bubblers, and their fight for a living wage and better working conditions are terrifying the bosses.

It's time to throw out the Texas plan, the testing corporations, the charter operators, the hedge fund managers, the venture philanthropists and the education bureaucracy and let educators in every state run the schools all children deserve. Students, teachers and parents can make this happen by refusing tests in as many creative ways possible.

Diane Ravitch urges this type of resistance to save the public school system: "The state can't run without the willing participation of those it harms."

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