A Standardized Testing Revolt

Over the past year, there's been a steady and ongoing revolt in Texas. Not about secession or guns or the many other fringe topics that the state is usually associated with. This battle has been waged primarily by parents and teachers, and the demand is relatively simple—cut back on testing our kids. There's been similar sentiments simmering in states across the country, but in Texas a new set of tests, put in place last year, sparked the outcry. Now, the push that began in school board and PTA meetings has finally reached the halls of power.

When the biennial state legislature gaveled in on Tuesday, it didn't take long for newly re-elected Speaker of the House Joe Straus to mention testing. "By now, every member of this house has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools," he said. "Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization. To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing: The Texas House has heard you."

It's quite a turnaround for the state that brought standardized testing onto the national agenda. In the 1990s, Governor George W. Bush implemented a series of statewide requirements. Running for president, he claimed the new accountability system led to dramatic improvements, particularly among poor and minority students, calling the results the "Texas Miracle"—though just how miraculous these gains were has since been called into question. In Washington, Bush modeled his No Child Left Behind legislation on the state plan, and around the country, testing became an increasingly prominent part of public education.

Now Texas is almost certain to scale back on testing, which has continued to expand since Bush's time. Currently the state tests kids every year in multiple subjects between third and eighth grade. In fifth and eighth grade, children who fail are automatically held back. High-schoolers must pass a number of class-specific tests to graduate. The state uses the tests to evaluate the students and the schools. Many other states have a similar system, and plenty have gone even farther, using standardized test results to determine teacher performance and the like.

Meanwhile, the state has continued to update its tests. Student achievement has steadily declined under Bush's successor, Governor Rick Perry, so the answer had to be better tests—right? New ones approved by the legislature in 2009 were widely considered an improvement. But they are also significantly more difficult, and they were scheduled to go into place for the 2011-12 school year—just as the state slashed an unprecedented $5.4 billion from public schools to avoid raising taxes. Many of the programs used to identify and help struggling children were cut from state and local budgets, and teachers were left to teach to a more rigorous test with fewer resources. As the huge cuts went into place, those already frustrated by the emphasis on testing pointed to the state's $500 million contract with Pearson, the international corporation that does testing. The new tests threatened dire consequences for high-school students—under the new law, 15 percent of their final grade in a class was to be determined by their standardized test score in that subject. 

Even before the tests and budget cuts went into effect, it was clear that a backlash was brewing. For rural communities, in particular, the public school is often the heart of the town, providing employment for many and a reason for families not to move away, so concerns about too much testing seemed to take on greater urgency. While most of the national anti-testing rhetoric comes from teachers' groups and others associated with the left, in Texas rural Republicans took the lead. During the 2011 session, even as lawmakers were gutting education spending, one-third of the state House members, mostly Republicans, supported an amendment from Representative Larry Phillips of the small town of Sherman to get a waiver from the Department of Education and suspend testing for the next two school years. An East Texas GOP member filed a bill to create a total moratorium on standardized testing. Neither effort was successful, but both bills revealed the extent to which lawmakers were beginning to feel pressure from constituents. 

By February 2012, the Perry-appointed state commissioner of education shocked the education establishment when he said the state testing system had become a "perversion of its original intent" and needed to be "reel[ed] back in." Robert Scott, who's since stepped down from the position, also said the state should not require 15 percent of a high-school student's grade come from his or her test score. After some back and forth between Scott and the legislature, that requirement was postponed.

The 15-percent requirement may be struck altogether this year. That's just one of the proposals to reform testing this session. Others include scaling back all the new testing requirements and changing how schools are assessed based on test scores. Much of the effort will likely come from Republicans—a significant shift from much of the country, where education reform is popular among most Republicans and an increasingly large number of Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In Texas, more than 800 of the state’s 1,030 school districts have passed resolutions severely criticizing the state’s testing system. You can bet most of those districts consider themselves pretty conservative. Some have pointed to the huge price tags to testing—by 2015, the state will have paid Pearson $1.1 billion for a variety of testing services.

Still, the picture for public schools in Texas is hardly rosy. Easing up testing may be one of the only bright spots for education advocates this year. Texas is last in the nation in per-capita school funding, but despite the enormous cuts from the last legislative session, Perry has urged lawmakers to focus again on tax cuts rather than increasing government spending. An ongoing legal battle over school funding may be the only hope for an increase in money for school districts. Meanwhile, many expect far-right Republican Senator Dan Patrick, the newly appointed chair of education who's steadily grown a power base of like-minded conservatives, to push hard on measures for vouchers to use public dollars to pay for private schools.

Texas’ shift on testing could well have national repercussions. After all, it did more than any other state to bring the country into an era of Number 2 pencils and filling in bubbles. It might also be the state that leads us out. 

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