The education reformers who brought us No Child Left Behind have done screwed up. They’ve messed with Texas mommas.
The mommas in question live in good neighborhoods so their kids can go to good schools with great teachers. When these moms realized that the latest round of high-stakes testing “reform” was hurting their AP kids, they didn’t just get mad, they got organized—and everyone has noticed.
“One thing that people need to understand is that the parents have awoken,” said Steve Flores, a school superintendant in South Texas at this weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival in Austin.
The Texas testing rebellion started last year when the Texas reformers—led by business interests and Pearson Education—nearly quadrupled the number of standardized tests high schoolers must pass to graduate in the name of college readiness. Facing a budget shortfall, the legislature cut school spending by $5.4 billion but gave Pearson Education a $468-million contract for the new assessment called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test.
Upset at instituting a new testing regime amid budget cuts, 77% of all school boards representing 86% of students adopted resolutions opposing the over-reliance on high-stakes testing.
“The fact that a little short of 800 school boards have passed resolutions against the over-reliance on standardized testing is an absolute result of what school board members see in their own communities,” said Karen Rue, the superintendant of a wealthier school district in Fort Worth. And when she’s talking about “communities,” what Rue means is “angry moms.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of moms. The passion of these women is powerful. We’ve dubbed them ‘Mothers Against Drunk Testing,’” said former Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott. “Get to know them because they’re going to be a powerful force in this next session.”
Laura Yeager of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment—the so-called “Mothers Against Drunk Testing”—highlights the timing of the end-of-course exams that are held weeks before the actual end of the course. Yeager says this forced her son’s AP teacher to cram a full year of instruction into part of the year to meet the needs of the STAAR test, forcing the teacher to stop getting the kids ready for the AP test.
“It has turned into measurement for measurements sake. There’s nothing productive about it,” said Yeager.
Or as Corpus Christi superintendant Scott Elliff said, “You don’t get better pork by weighing your pig every day.”
Houston superintendant Terry Grier said pressure from the state on school districts to post good scores is so high that Grier says his schools stopped teaching 65 days last year so they could get ready for the tests—and the school year only has 180 days. The testing tail is wagging the classroom dog, and Grier said parents are mad.
“Last six maybe seven weeks of school, everything was shut down,” said Grier. “We had music teachers drilling and killing to get ready for the test. Parents were very upset about that.”
School superintendants argue over whether to call a budget cut a “challenge” or an “opportunity.” These are professionally optimistic bureaucrats, so to hear them uniformly state that school accountability detracts from learning sounded shocking. But there’s a growing consensus among school administrators, school boards, teachers, and now newly active parents, that standardized testing has gone too far.
“It’s not about the kids. It’s not about the learning. It’s about manipulating the results for accountability purposes, and that all goes back to the legislature, setting the stakes so high,” said Yeager, who is guardedly optimistic from the reaction they’ve been getting from state lawmakers so far.
“When they hear about the impact of the high stakes on the students’ graduation rate, the actual learning, the environment in schools, they say, ‘Oh no, no, no, that’s not the intention,’” said Yeager.
The Texas Association of Business has threatened school funding if the legislature tinkers with accountability standards, and the new TEA Commissioner wants more money for testing. But now instead of fighting school employees, testing advocates will face a new foe when the legislature convenes next year: a million angry moms.
And if momma ain’t happy, no one’s happy.