High-stakes tests aren't good for students, teachers, or schools. So who are they good for?
BY EMILY PYLE / TEXAS OBSERVER
The committee hearing in the basement of the Texas Capitol on February 28 offered a glimpse of what the next phase of public school reform in this country might look like. The House Public Education Committee heard testimony on House Bill 2, an omnibus school finance and reform package. If the bill passes and Texas continues to serve as a national blueprint for school reform, the rest of the country should brace for more tests, with more riding on those tests than ever. The new legislation would inject additional “accountability” into public education, this time by expanding standardized testing in high schools, and tying funding, including teacher salaries, to performance on state exams. Those proposals aren’t popular in many quarters. Eighteen people representing teachers, administrators, parents, and public school advocates testified against the bill. They asked for fewer testing mandates and more public school funding. The critics of the bill are part of a growing movement against the Texas education model, enshrined in the landmark federal law No Child Left Behind. Opponents say the current focus on testing degrades education and drains resources from the neediest schools.
Only one witness testified in favor of the bill. There was a small stir as Sandy Kress came to the microphone; in gatherings like this, he is something of a celebrity. Ten years ago, public school accountability was a vague, unenforceable ideal from free market enthusiasts who wanted to see schools run more like businesses. Kress, a Dallas lawyer, was serving what would be his last, tumultuous term as president of the Dallas school board. Fellow board members were calling the newspaper to denounce him as a racist and a bully. The fortunes of the reform movement and of Kress have risen together. He is one of the principal designers of No Child Left Behind, and has used his knowledge and connections to earn millions as a high-powered lobbyist for test publishers.
Despite the lack of an endorsement from any major Texas education group, passage of HB 2 out of the committee was a foregone conclusion. Accountability, with its powerful allies, seems unstoppable. Its supporters are free market reformers who say test scores bring a needed dose of reality to lazy educational bureaucracies. Others are education reformers who believe that the best hope for poor and minority students lies in the public humiliation of their “low-performing” schools. And a select few enrich themselves supplying the demand public school reform has created for tests, and the tools it takes to pass them. Kress appears to be all of the above.
“A decade earlier, Texas was going backwards,” Kress told the committee. “Graduation rates were going down. Our minority youngsters were going nowhere.” Now, he insisted, because of accountability, schools are better. The committee should go further, and faster—more tests, shorter deadlines, tougher standards. It was a radically different perspective than that voiced by other witnesses. Of course, unlike other witnesses, Kress was not lobbying on behalf of schools, teachers, or students, but a coalition of business interests who have pushed their version of school reform in Texas for more than a decade.
Kress can be an appealing witness—unusually alert and impassioned, with a voice that readily conveys sincerity in the faintest of Dallas inflections. He champions cash incentives for teachers who improve student test scores, but says they should be used primarily to draw talented teachers into the poorest schools. (Business groups use incentives as a means to side-step blanket pay raises, teachers’ groups say.)
Kress plays up the interests of poor and minority students, while soft-pedaling the need for increased funding. Business leaders have thrown themselves foursquare against more money. “I think the business community feels we ought to spend more and more on education,” Kress told the committee. “I think some would be willing to pay more. But I think they all feel very deeply that if they’re going to pay more, they want to see results, they want to see efficiency, they want to see accountability.” HB 2, with its emphasis on test scores and its marginal increases in funding, seemed to be exactly what business leaders wanted. Kress closed with, “Keep up the good work.”
Eleven days later, the Texas House of Representatives approved HB 2, and though the Senate has tinkered with the bill’s financing, the testing provisions remain intact. If it seems peculiar that a system so good for business and so hard on public schools should also be packaged as the best answer for “disadvantaged” students, that’s the genius of Sandy Kress. From his days in Dallas to his tenure in the Bush administration, Kress has pushed accountability as the final solution for poor and minority kids stuck in under-performing public schools. Since returning to Austin and high-profile lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 2002, Kress has been teaching businesses to turn a profit helping schools meet the mandates of No Child Left Behind. In the process, he’s made about $4 million in lobbying contracts, in large part from companies that profit from provisions of the law he helped to design. Kress says his clients share his vision of schools where unequivocal standards make educating every student no longer optional.
“When I take on a client, I try to take on people who seem committed to the same goals I have,” says Kress, who agreed to answer interview questions by e-mail. “I expect to be judged by the same standard by which I judge others—has this work contributed to improved educational results for students, particularly disadvantaged students?”
It’s a question that’s still very much up for debate.
In Dallas in the late eighties, Kress was an anomalous figure, a prominent lawyer involved in local Democratic politics—he was elected to chair the Dallas County Democratic Party in 1986—with strong connections in the local, mainly Republican, business community. “Sandy had close ties to business in Dallas,” says Rene Castilla, former president of the Dallas Independent School District’s board of trustees. “They listened to each other.”
It was during Castilla’s term as board president that Kress first began to dabble in school board politics. At the time, Dallas business leaders were worried about the abysmal standardized test scores in the city’s predominantly black schools. “Dallas had a pretty poor reputation for the performance of its schools,” Castilla says. “That didn’t sit well with business. A business community wants to attract new business to the area, and there’s two questions people ask before relocating—housing and schools.”
Accountability was an idea then making the rounds among business leaders. Both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton tried to implement national standards for American education, but attempts to enforce the new rules met with complex partisan opposition and by the early nineties the movement had stalled. Business leaders began to suggest the solution was to treat failing schools like failing corporations: Establish clear-cut standards, monitor whether they were met, and either reward the successful or punish the failures. “Just as businesses are results-oriented, so schools must also be,” Lou Gerstner, then CEO of IBM, wrote in his book Reinventing Education in 1994. “Results are not achieved by bureaucratic regulation. They are achieved by meeting customer requirements by rewards for success and penalties for failure. Market discipline is the key, the ultimate form of accountability.”
Kress presented accountability to the school board in 1990 as a way to simultaneously raise test scores and win the support of business. To a school board then trying to float a hefty bond issue against business opposition, that sounded like a good deal. The board tapped Kress to head a commission that would shape an accountability system for the district. After months of study, the commission proposed a system that rated schools by their test scores, with schools that showed the most improvement getting cash awards of $5,000 to $10,000. Perhaps most importantly, the system would force schools to disaggregate test scores, keeping administrators from disguising low scores for poor, black, or Latino students by averaging them into the general population. The board unanimously approved the commission’s proposals in 1991. The next year, Kress was elected to the school board with the overwhelming support of influential business leaders, including Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush. “Sandy believed minority kids deserved better than they were getting,” says Castilla, who lost the board presidency to Kress in 1994. “He was very hard-working, very zealous about making a difference.”
However, black school board members saw accountability as an attempt to undermine the city’s 1974 desegregation order, which allotted extra money and resources to Dallas’s historically neglected black schools. Kress did torpedo several key components of the desegregation order, heading efforts that slashed more than $15 million from bond proposals for a magnet school in a mostly black part of town. He also sought to limit the money spent on “learning centers” meant to reverse the city’s busing policy by bringing black students back into their own neighborhoods. As board president, Kress brought a hardball style of politics to what had been a sleepy municipal body; black board members accused him of meeting in secret with favored board members and manipulating the board’s committee system to dilute the minority vote. Secretly taped conversations alleged to be between Kress and fellow board member and political ally Dan Peavy supported the accusations. Peavy used racial slurs when describing plans to curb the influence of black board members. Kress’s identity on the tapes was never confirmed, but soon after they came to light in 1995, he announced he would not run for another term as board president. “I have no idea what the next challenge will be,” he told reporters at a press conference in January 1996. “But I am sure there will be one.”
He didn’t have long to wait. A year later, Kress moved to Austin, where he already had friends. In 1993, he had worked with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock on the first draft of the Texas accountability system, which introduced the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test. He had briefed George W. Bush on education policy during his 1994 run against incumbent Ann Richards. Once in Austin, Kress helped Gov. Bush lobby for pet reforms like ending social promotion. As a paid consultant for the Governor’s Business Council, Kress traveled across the state pushing Bush’s education agenda. He also served as a board member of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, and a lobbyist for TBEC’s lobbying arm, Texans for Education. By 1998, Kress was working for Akin Gump. Through the firm, Kress held lobbying contracts for McGraw-Hill, the textbook publishing company that had long-standing personal ties to the Bush family. Kress was one of the architects of the Governor’s Reading Initiative, which eventually landed McGraw-Hill the lion’s share of the Texas textbook market.
In 2000, Kress helped Bush craft the education platform that became the centerpiece of “compassionate conservativism” and stumped for Bush’s plan throughout the campaign, telling the story of the “Texas miracle”—rising test scores, happy urban school kids, a bright new future—again and again. When Bush finally secured his victory, he took Kress along with him to Washington, D.C. Once inside the Beltway, Kress played key roles in crafting and passing No Child Left Behind. Officially still a Democrat, he was instrumental in putting together the bipartisan push behind the bill, pulling Democratic lawmakers Ted Kennedy, George Miller, and John Boehner into the president’s court. The law that took shape required states to test every student in the third through eighth grades and once in high school, and publicize the scores. By 2014, all students, including those in special education and those with limited English skills, would have to pass the exam. To that end, the states would establish “adequate yearly progress” or AYP standards. Schools that receive Title I funding—federal aid for schools with high numbers of poor, minority, and at-risk students—would be penalized if they failed to meet the standards for three years running.
Kress continued to promise that high-stakes testing would save poor and minority students by drawing attention to their low scores. Some credit Kress as the original coiner of Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations”—the catch-phrase now used to lob a subtle accusation of racism and class-ism at anyone who protests that testing mandates are unfair to those same disadvantaged kids.
he General Accounting Office predicts states will spend between $1.9 and $5.3 billion a year meeting the testing requirement of the law. But that’s only a fraction of the law’s costs; other provisions are even more expensive—and, to the suddenly burgeoning education industry, even more lucrative.
No Child Left Behind requires states to produce “interpretive, descriptive, and diagnostic reports… that allow parents, teachers, and principals to understand and address the specific academic needs of students.” Since few pretend that a standardized test given once a year can do anything so sophisticated, schools are finding they need separate “formative testing programs” to meet the requirement. The formative testing model, according to the test publisher NCS Pearson, is to “teach, assess, report, diagnose, and prescribe.” Pearson, with other publishers, offers a full range of products for every step of the process.
Schools with high numbers of low-scoring students have three years to raise their scores before penalties kick in, and those are also expensive. The so-called “choice” provision, with its passing resemblance to vouchers, has attracted media attention, but has proved unpopular so far. The provision allows students at low-performing campuses to transfer to one of their district’s better performing schools, but only about 1 percent of eligible students made the transfer last year, according to data kept by the U.S. Department of Education. Instead, parents are taking advantage of another provision that requires low-performing schools to provide free after-school tutoring services, using a state-approved, “research-based” tutoring program.
The law also demands a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the end of the 2006 school year. Though the definition of “highly qualified” is vague, with states setting their own standards of quality, the requirement has opened up a new market in materials geared toward teachers. Most major publishers now offer professional development products and services, some of which provide general training in pedagogy, but many of which merely train teachers to use another of the publisher’s classroom products.
In a time of growing budget crises, few states—let alone districts and schools—have the time or the money to develop the programs that No Child Left Behind makes mandatory, or all but mandatory. That’s where business, and Sandy Kress, come in.
Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in January 2002. Five months later, Kress registered with the U.S. Secretary of the Senate as a lobbyist for NCS Pearson. Kress specializes in helping his clients tailor themselves to the requirements of No Child Left Behind, something Pearson has done with startling success. A publishing conglomerate that owns The Financial Times and Penguin Books, Pearson had been a bit player in the education market, concentrating on the scoring of standardized tests. In 2000, however, Pearson acquired National Computer Systems, the company that held the contract for designing and scoring the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Since then, Pearson has built an accountability empire of sorts, becoming the third-largest testing company in the country, behind CTB McGraw-Hill and Harcourt Educational Measurement.
NCS Pearson publishes software systems that allow teachers to create, administer, and score “diagnostic” tests that purport to show how well students are learning by demonstrating in part how prepared they are for state tests. Subsidiary Pearson Educational Measurement holds test design contracts in states with large testing programs, like Florida and Texas. Pearson Education, another subsidiary, publishes reading, math, science, art, and music curricula for grades K-12. Other subsidiaries offer online testing, data management services, and professional training for teachers, including an online master’s degree program. The company claims to have at least one product placed in 50,000 schools nationwide.
Another of Kress’s clients, Educational Testing Services, Inc., also made a sudden market surge in the wake of No Child Left Behind. A non-profit best known as the publisher of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), ETS stayed clear of the commercial testing business for nearly 50 years. Beginning with the spin-off of for-profit subsidiary K-12 Works in 2000, however, ETS has aggressively pursued state testing contracts. The company now holds contracts with New Jersey, Indiana, and the plum of the state testing market, California. ETS also offers a professional development program for teachers and one of the few tests so far available to certify teaching aides.
Another Kress client, Kaplan, Inc., which formerly specialized in prepping students for college entrance exams, now offers a variety of test-related services. These include prep courses tailored to the standardized tests in 13 states and the District of Columbia, “Intervention” programs targeting low-scoring students with skill-drilling software, and professional development courses in which, for roughly $1,000 an hour, Kaplan specialists give teachers tips on how to coach their students to pass the test.
Kress also lobbies for HOSTS Learning, which publishes online testing tools and an associated line of curricular materials and for Kumon North America, a rising star in the brand-new after-school tutoring market. Other clients include Community Education Partners, a for-profit school management company that runs alternative campuses for students with disciplinary problems, as well as companies that help schools and districts collect, manage, and report the volume of data required by No Child Left Behind.
There’s a lot of money in what’s coming to be known as the assessment market, but most of it is going to the handful of companies, like Pearson, who have successfully built up assessment empires. “The top four or five players in the textbook market are also top players in the testing market,” says Mark Jackson, a senior analyst with Eduventures, a firm which tracks trends in the commercial education market. As the focus on testing intensifies, the test prep materials these companies offer are becoming the standard curriculum, especially in poor schools, where the scores are often lowest, and the pressure to raise them most extreme. “It’s a zero-sum game of financing,” Jackson says. “What fits into the testing model gets bought, and what doesn’t, doesn’t.”
But what’s been a boon for a handful of publishers has been a disaster for education, critics say. As pressure to raise scores intensifies, teachers and principals at low-performing schools have found creative ways to raise scores—from encouraging low-scoring students to drop out of school before Test Day to simply erasing and rewriting students’ testing sheets. The most common resort, however, is to drill the reading and math skills covered by the test, to the detriment of other, untested subjects. As an ever-greater percentage of class time goes into test preparation, more money flows to the companies that publish test prep material.
The schools under the most pressure are those that educate large populations of poor, minority, and limited-English students. Ninety-nine percent of the kids in the Laredo Independent School District are Latino; ninety-five percent of them come from families below the poverty level. The district’s test scores are consistently low. “These are kids who often don’t speak English, kids without the kinds of experiences that kids elsewhere may have,” says Laredo ISD superintendent Sylvia Bruni. “They come from homes without books. Some don’t have televisions.” They are, in fact, the disadvantaged kids for whom Sandy Kress has been pitching accountability for nearly 15 years.
Laredo’s third-grade teachers spent the equivalent of one day a week administering either the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test itself or diagnostic “formative assessment” tests this school year, a district-wide testing inventory found. The inventory didn’t count time spent on test prep, which Bruni says is “almost constant”—extended school days, Saturday test prep classes, and a portion of every class, in every subject, every day. Since individual schools purchase most of their test prep materials themselves, Bruni doesn’t have a district-wide figure on how much money is spent. But she says it’s a large percentage of resources that the district—one of the poorest in the state—can ill afford. “The district spends money, the campuses spend money, the teachers spend money,” Bruni says. “It’s a lot.”
Laredo administrators have decided to cut back on practice tests in future years, but the decision is a hard one. Test prep isn’t education, Bruni says, and the time and money spent on it mean that other, more sophisticated curriculum must be dumped. The district is under increasing pressure to raise scores, however. Two of Laredo’s three high schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in 2004, and progress requirements will climb each year. Without extensive drilling, more students will fail the test and the sanctions of No Child Left Behind will kick in. Earlier this year, Laredo ISD joined the National Education Agency’s lawsuit against the Department of Education, challenging the law. “You can’t seem to break the stranglehold,” Bruni says. “The temptation is just to drill. It isn’t meaningful for the kids, but teachers know that the scores will go up.”
If tests are over-emphasized, Kress says, teachers and principals themselves are at fault. “Why do administrators allow test prep materials to dominate the curriculum in schools that serve the poor?” he asks. “Damn it, they’re the ones in charge.” Despite protests from districts like Laredo, Kress is pushing for higher stakes, tougher standards, and swifter retribution against schools that don’t make the grade. Kress was the head cheerleader for proposals from the Governor’s Business Council that wound up in HB 2: requiring a passing score on high school exit exams for course credit (and thus graduation), reducing the deadline for improvement from three years to two, and allowing private companies to take over consistently low-performing schools.
He has also used his position on the Texas Education Commissioners’ Accountability Advisory Committee to push the Texas Education Agency to toughen its accountability rating system. At an advisory committee meeting in March, Kress laid out a proposal under which the percentage of students who must pass the test before a school is rated “acceptable” would jump by 10 points. Rates would then climb five points a year until 2010, when 100 percent of students must pass the reading exam before a school will be considered acceptable. When other committee members called for a more gradual and realistic stepping-up of the rating system, Kress lost his temper. “He threw a tantrum,” says one fellow committee member. “He had a very ideological perspective, and others were trying to introduce some realism. He seemed to be trying to shout us into doing what he wanted. He’s a charming, agreeable, persuasive guy, but in front of an audience he’s not trying to charm, he’s a bully.”
Accountability’s supporters continue to push testing as the surest, fastest solution for the poor kids in weak schools. That a handful of companies are making a killing off accountability, they say, is incidental—just another example of the beauty of the free market system. But a mounting body of evidence suggests the “Texas miracle” Sandy Kress used to sell accountability to the country is a sham. Critics point to Texas’ rising dropout rates and flagging scores on college entrance exams as signs that test-prep-centered teaching is taking its toll on kids—especially those who are black, Latino, or poor.
Almost two out of five Texas high school students never earn a high school diploma, according to a report released this year by the Intercultural Development Research Association, which has tracked Texas dropout rates since 1986. IDRA’s report showed that in 2004, 36 percent of students who were freshman in 2001 were gone by last spring’s graduation ceremonies. That number is down slightly from previous years, but still higher than it was 20 years ago. Attrition rates are highest among minorities, the IDRA report shows, and the gap is growing. In 1986, 27 percent of Anglo students left school without graduating. Last year, Anglo students’ attrition was down to 22 percent, while rates for black students had climbed from 34 to 44 percent, and for Latinos from 45 to 49 percent. The report estimates dropouts have cost the state $500 billion over the past two decades in lost productivity and in the costs of social services, courts, and jails.
Dr. Albert Cortez, director of IDRA’s Institute of Policy and Leadership, is quick to point out that Texas’ dropout trouble predates high-stakes testing. But the tests, far from being a solution, have become part of the problem, he says. Narrowed curriculum bores and daunts some students into dropping out. Students who don’t think they’ll pass the high school test—a requirement for graduation—may stop going to school. Other researchers, including Dr. Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas and Rice education professor Linda McNeil, say administrators under pressure to raise test scores may push potentially low-scoring students to drop out before the exam.
Despite the emphasis accountability supporters put on “narrowing the achievement gap,” state scores on college entrance exams show minority students losing ground since the tests were instituted. Fewer Texas high school students are taking the SAT and ACT now than 10 years ago, data from the Texas Education Agency shows, and on average they are scoring worse. The average score on the SATs for Latino students has fallen 17 points since 1996. The average score of black students has also drifted down, from 852 in 1996 to 843 in 2003. Only Anglo students show slight improvement, from 1043 to 1051.
Sandy Kress knows the data on high schools isn’t good. His solution is more tests. The gains tests bring in elementary and middle schools are lost in high school, Kress says, because high schools aren’t held accountable. Here in Texas, Kress has agitated to extend standardized testing to high schools. “We still are not where we need to be in terms of college-going rates, particularly for poor and minority kids,” Kress says. “That’s what this secondary school focus is all about. We still have some schools that perform pitifully without consequence.” And if the teaching curriculum has narrowed to suit the demands of the test, Kress says the answer is to test more. “This will make some testing critics cringe, but one thing the accountability system can do with the narrowness problem is have more subjects tested,” he says.
Testing critics do indeed cringe when they imagine what history, science, and art will look like broken down into manageable, multiple-choice, worksheet-length bites. Worse, a recent report by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice suggests No Child Left Behind is exporting Texas-style testing scandals to the rest of the country: In New York, school administrators have been accused of pushing thousands of low-scoring students into high school equivalency programs, where, although they never earn diplomas, they don’t count as dropouts. In North Carolina, eight out of ten elementary school teachers say they spend more than 20 percent of class time preparing for tests. Reports of cheating by principals and teachers have surfaced in more than 20 states.
Bush’s proposed education budget for 2006 echoes Texas’ planned expansion of testing. The bulk of the president’s High School Initiative is $1.24 billion in “research-based interventions” for students at risk of failing the new tests. Few districts have such interventional programs; even fewer know how to go about designing and implementing them. Luckily, most test-publishers already offer their own versions. The jury is still out on whether the tests are good for kids, and whether more tests will be better. But they will be very, very good for business. And, of course, they’ll be good for Sandy Kress.
Emily Pyle is a freelance reporter based in Austin.