Update: Diane Ravitch has continued the discussion on her blog.
Original Post: The Texas legislature only meets for a few months every other year because when they’re in session they can do more damage than Mötley Crüe in a hotel room. And in 2011, they got a little out of hand. Rick Perry was nursing his presidential ambitions like a bad hangover and made the Republican legislature cut $5.4 billion from public schools to avoid raising taxes.
Now they’re trying to say they never trashed the hotel room in the first place. Comptroller Susan Combs, whose job is to count the state’s money, recently got a “Pants on Fire” rating from Politifact for claiming they actually increased school funding. Fiscal policy pronouncements from this crowd have as much validity as the Soviet crop reports under Joseph Stalin.
While the right hand was cutting, Perry’s far-right hand was spending—in the belief that measuring our kids makes them smarter. Despite the budget crunch, Texas gave a $470 million contract to Pearson Education to design the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. And exactly no one was surprised that Pearson’s lobbyist was Sandy Kress, the father of No Child Left Behind under George W. Bush.
That’s when Robert Scott, head of Perry’s education agency, shocked the hell out of everyone. Scott testified under questioning before the State Board of Education that high-stakes testing is a “perversion” of proper accountability. He then promised a group of thousands of school administrators—remember this, it’s on the test—that he wouldn’t enforce a ban on social promotion unless schools received enough money to offer remedial classes to failing students.
No one’s supposed to read the crop reports. When Scott told the inconvenient truth that schools were being strangled by budget cuts and over-testing, the fertilizer hit the fan. The state’s leading business lobby ran a full-page newspaper ad criticizing Scott’s comments, and Bill Hammond, the group’s leader, called him a “cheerleader for mediocrity.”
That was enough to quell the uprising in Austin, but it started another one in the hinterlands. At first, 30 school districts adopted a resolution slamming high-stakes testing that is “imposing relentless test preparation and boring memorization of facts to enhance test performance.” Hammond’s remarks had lit a fuse. Soon, other school districts were adopting the resolution. “We all wanted in,” said John Kuhn, the superintendant of a North Texas school district. “There is amazing consensus among ‘regular folk’ public school educators—teachers, administrators, and board members—especially in rural and suburban areas-that testing has gone off the deep end.”
When the number of school districts that had adopted the anti-testing resolution crested 100, the Washington Post took notice. Now 447 districts representing nearly 2.6 million students have joined the uprising. And the Texas Association of School Administrators—that group that cheered on Robert Scott—has sided with the rebellion, posting the resolution and the list of school districts that have adopted it on its website. The anti-testing insurgency has also spawned a mutiny among parents who cite a parental rights provision in state law allowing them to remove their children from state mandated testing.
This has all gotten wonderfully out of hand, leaving Sandy Kress mystified. “We’re going to break the policy in the law for what end? Is it freedom for people? Ending a war? No. It’s not showing that you’re competent in reading, writing, and arithmetic, science and social studies,” said Kress.
Among the school districts that have adopted the resolution is Austin, where many children of politicos attend school. Not Kress’ kids, though. The Kress children attend private schools in Austin where they don’t have to take the STAAR test.
“I think it speaks for itself that the man who created test-based punitive accountability for 90% of the children of Texas has chosen a school for his own children that is free from his grand invention, his hateful guillotine of test-and-label,” said Kuhn. “Seems to me that Mr. Kress loves his children but wants to make fistfuls of money off mine. I’m not okay with that. While his kids get discovery and exploration, my kids get stress and STAAR tests. If these policies that Sandy Kress champions were good for children, he would subject his kids to the STAAR test.”
Scott recently announced he’s quitting the education agency this summer, prompting questions about whether he’s leaving on his own terms or being exiled for telling the truth. Perry will miss Scott in 2013 when the legislature returns to deal with another budget deficit—as well as little revolution.
This column ran on Politico’s Arena on May 26, 2012.