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Texas vs. No Child Left Behind

The state where it all began turns against the Cult of Educational Testing

Seventeen months from now, every American student will be proficient in reading, and mathematics. On what basis do I make such a bold claim? It’s the law.

When the No Child Left Behind Legislation was signed by President George W. Bush 11 years ago, it required that by the end of 2013-2014 school year, “all students… will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement on the State assessments.”

If you find it absurd that we can make all our students above average with the stroke of the presidential pen, you’re not alone. The 100 percent proficiency goal of NCLB is now widely acknowledged to be a pipe dream. Recent trends indicate that schools are not even headed in the right direction; and, in much of the press, the 100 percent proficiency goal has become something of the punch line of a joke. Meanwhile, in a move that tacitly acknowledges the unworkability of the current law, the Department of Education is granting NCLB waivers to states which will make it easier for them to skirt the requirements.

So how did we get to the point where we confused legislating high standards with achieving high standards? To find the answer we have to go back in time. Even further back than January of 2002 when President Bush, flanked by a bipartisan group of legislators including Sen. Ted Kennedy, signed NCLB into law at a high school in Hamilton, Ohio. We have to return to the president’s home state of Texas.

Texas is where the failed policies of NCLB, along with an almost pathological obsession with testing, had their start.

And Texas, in a serendipitous turn of events, is poised to lead the way in reforming our nation’s approach to education. Diane Ravitch is a native Texan who served as assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and once championed many of the policies associated with NCLB before becoming one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the law. Ravitch has recently written that “Texas brought No Child Left Behind to the nation” but that thanks to a recent revolt among parents and educators in the state, there is a new message: “Don’t Mess with Texas. The Revolution Begins Here.”

“Texas has to be the place where a stake is driven through the heart of the vampire,” Ravitch bluntly stated.

For the past two decades, excessive emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing and a one-size-fits-all focus on preparing all students for college came to dominate education policy in Texas and later, in Washington, D.C. with the passage of the Bush-Kennedy “No Child Left Behind” legislation. In addition, vocational education came to be neglected—even denigrated—in this massive push to make all students “college-ready.” Meanwhile, the principle of local control over education (which historically had been a deeply-held belief of Goldwater-Reagan Conservatives) was abandoned by Republican politicians in Texas and Washington, D.C., in their rush to be known as “educational reformers.”

The existing system relies heavily on how students score on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness—commonly referred to as the STAAR tests. Under the STAAR, students have to take up to 12 end-of-course exams during their time in high school; and the tests are supposed to account for 15 percent of the student’s final grade in the subject tested. However, implementation of the 15 percent grading requirement was delayed because of a public outcry.

Even longtime proponents of high-stakes, standardized testing are starting to question the wisdom of the current system of school accountability. As reported by Paul Burka in Texas Monthly, the former commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Robert Scott, made this startling admission in a speech to the Texas Association of School Administrators: “I believe that testing is good for some things, but the system that we have created has become a perversion of its original intent, the intent to improve teaching and learning. The intent to improve teaching and learning has gone too far afield, and I look forward to reeling it back in.”

How did Texas education policy become so centralized at the state level?

H. Ross Perot began the process of having the state assume more control over public education in Texas with his well-intentioned effort in 1984 to improve standards of education by requiring students to pass a basic skills test to earn a diploma in Texas. The current, test-based accountability system really began to gain momentum during Gov. Ann Richards’s term in office in 1993 when, at the insistence of Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the Texas legislature passed a school accountability plan which used an annual statewide test for all public school students in Texas (the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills or TAAS) as the primary measurement for school and student performance.

The new Texas accountability system neatly categorized schools into four easy-to-understand labels: “Exemplary,” “Recognized,” “Acceptable,” and “Low Performing” (which was later changed to “Academically Unacceptable”). These categories were based on passing rates on state exams and on dropout rates, but had little to do with measuring whether schools were preparing students for success in college or for meaningful employment.

But the labels played well from a public-relations standpoint for respective governors, beginning with Ann Richards, who could tout their support for “education reform.” Realtors often include in their report on homes for sale not only the name of the public schools serving that neighborhood, but also the state’s accountability ratings.

The principal architect of Texas’s accountability system was a lawyer from Dallas named Sandy Kress. The most thorough analysis of Kress’s role in pushing Texas’s education policy in the direction of a high-stakes testing system was one written by Mark Donald for the October 19, 2000 issue in the Dallas Observer right before George W. Bush’s election to the presidency. Entitled “The Resurrection of Sandy Kress,” Donald’s article described how Democrat Kress and Republican Bush came to be close allies in pushing Kress’s vision of “educational accountability.”

I had gotten to know Sandy Kress when he was the Dallas County Democratic Chairman, and I was an active Republican. Later, I was elected State Chairman of the Texas Republican Party in 1994, the year in which George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in the race for governor of Texas. What I didn’t know at the time—but soon learned after the November election—was that Sandy Kress already had been a major advisor to George W. Bush on education issues for some period of time. I found that unusual since Sandy Kress was a liberal Democrat whose views on education and other domestic policy issues were very much at odds with the views of conservatives like myself who believed in local control of education and decentralization of governmental power, wherever possible. Moreover, Sandy had not exactly distinguished himself in the early 1990s when he chaired the board of the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), during one of the most tumultuous periods in DISD history.

But I soon learned how influential Sandy Kress was with the incoming Republican Governor. Bush wanted to appoint Kress as his Education Commissioner, but the objections of conservatives like myself and others to his appointment resulted in Gov. Bush naming an educator Mike Moses to that position, instead. (Ironically, Mike Moses and Sandy Kress now find themselves on opposite sides of the school accountability fight in Texas.)

Nonetheless, Sandy Kress remained a key strategic advisor to the governor. He worked closely with Margaret LaMontagne (later Margaret Spellings), who was Gov. Bush’s education advisor, in expanding the statewide accountability system. During Bush’s tenure as Governor, the state consolidated power over education in the office of the Texas Education Agency and the Education Commissioner who was appointed by the Governor. Meaningful local control over education in Texas continued to erode as the accountability ratings system caused local school districts to focus more attention on the performance measurements put in place by the state particularly the testing system. Since that system did not include evaluation of the effectiveness of vocational education instruction, that area of preparation became de-emphasized in many Texas school districts.

During the Bush years, much of the opposition to the high-stakes testing was muted. Some parents and educators expressed frustration with the state’s performance measurements, but the system was new at the time. And, much of that opposition was dismissed as political. Or, when educators and members of the business community complained about the shortage of skilled workers and the lack of opportunities for career training at the high school level, those critics were accused of wanting to “lower standards.”

Fast forward 15 years, and the current system has lost most of its luster. Texas has worker shortages in the skilled trades, and improvements on state tests aren’t reflected in college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT. In fact, average SAT reading scores in Texas have declined eight points in the last decade. A recent review by the National Academy of Sciences shows that high-stakes testing is not improving academic achievement. In fact, it may do more harm than good. While there is a debate about how to calculate dropout rates, just about everyone agrees that Texas has a serious problem with high school dropouts.

Many students get frustrated with the current one-size-fits-all test-based system with its emphasis on pushing everyone towards college; and they drop out because they don’t see education as relevant to them.

Texas policy-makers are coming to the realization that the high-stakes accountability system is fundamentally flawed. The accountability system assumes all students are headed to college, even though a mere 25 percent of high-school graduates attend a four-year university upon graduation. It also assumes that the state knows what is best for students being educated in such diverse settings such as Houston or a small, rural town.

We all are created equal, but we sure aren’t created the same. People have different strengths, abilities and interests. The state’s one-size-fits-all accountability system pressures school districts to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching to the test. As one teacher told me, it all becomes a numbers game to get the most students to pass the single test. Certain students in her class are going to pass it, and others likely will fail, so both groups tend to get neglected while most of the attention is focused on those students who are “on the bubble.”

High-achieving students, and their parents, feel that they are wasting their time on multiple-choice testing drills and practice tests rather than reading Shakespeare. And businesses are fed up with the fact that high schools are producing a lack of students prepared to enter skilled trades due to our neglect of vocational education at the high school level. That has resulted in a shortage of skilled workers and a greying workforce. For example, the average age of a welder is 55, a plumber 56, and a stone masonry craftsman 69.

Sandy Kress was very effective in the early years of this new state accountability system in getting business leaders behind his vision of making everyone “college-ready” by selling his vision as raising educational standards. He enlisted important business allies in advancing his agenda.

But the shape of the education debate is beginning to change. Frustration on the part of parents, employers, and educators with the current system has built up for years. Change is long overdue, and we need the courage to propose bold, meaningful solutions to these issues, rather than just tinkering around the edges. And, that is just what we are doing. A growing coalition of legislators, business and labor leaders, school board members, parents, other community leaders, and educators recognize that this is a serious issue and are working to fix it. The solution is simple, if not easy.

We need to allow for multiple pathways to a high school degree. One academic pathway would emphasize math and science. Another, the humanities and fine arts. A third would focus on career and technical education. All students would get the basics, but there would be greater flexibility than under the “one size fits all” existing system which pushes everyone towards a university degree.

This is a common sense approach to preparing young Texans to be college-ready or career-ready. It is time to end this “teaching to the test” system that isn’t working for either the kids interested in going on to a university or for those more oriented towards learning a skilled trade. Let’s replace it with one that focuses on real learning and opportunities for all.

In the past, when public frustration hit the boiling point, the testing establishment would simply roll out a new test with a new acronym and promise that the new test will fix everything. That is why, from 1991 to the present, the acronym of the Texas standardized test has gone from TAAS to TAKS and, now STAAR.

But that trick isn’t working this time. Supporters of the existing high-stakes system tried to address opposition by introducing the restrictive 4×4 curriculum in 2006 and unveiling the STAAR testing program in 2009. But far from mollifying the opposition, these changes made the system worse.

The 4×4 curriculum made it more difficult for students interested in career and technical education to take enough courses in their field of interest to get an industry-certified credential by the time they graduated from high school.

As the 2013 session of the Texas Legislature convenes, a major priority for many of us in this legislative session is to fix a broken system of education which isn’t working all that well for either those students who are college-oriented or for those students who want to get training, and an industry-certified credential, in a technical field.

But there are powerful interests arranged to protect the existing testing system. Pearson is the testing contractor and has an existing state contract that pays it nearly $500 million over a five-year period. Sandy Kress, a principal architect of our existing education policy in Texas and President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation, is not only a paid lobbyist for the testing contractor but is also determined to preserve the educational structure he worked so hard to put in place.

Just as Texas started this failed approach to educational accountability, the Texas Legislature has the opportunity to replace it with a common-sense system that focuses on real learning and opportunities for all.

Tom Pauken is a Texas Workforce Commissioner and author of Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back.



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