It's amazing how silent the press is on this stuff, generally. Hats off to Stanford for his voice and his grit.
Sandy Kress’ STAAR chamber
What started out as a well-intentioned attempt to leave no child behind has metastasized into a cult of standardized testing. But despite a top-to-bottom revolt against the tyranny of the test, no one is blaming the one man responsible for it all, Sandy Kress.
It’s hard to find anyone in Texas outside of the governor’s office defending what we euphemistically call “accountability in education.” Back in the early ‘90s, Texas was like every other state in the union and treated standardized test scores like diagnostic tools and not the result of education. The problem was that as we entered the Information Age, too many Texas schools were turning out kids ready for a “do you want fries with that” career.
Enter Sandy Kress, whom George W. Bush plucked from the Dallas School Board to help him apply the “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” mantra to public schools. It perhaps did not occur to Gov. Bush or Kress that Texas, which ranked dead last in per-pupil spending, might need to put more money into public schools. By punishing and publicizing failure, they reasoned, teachers and administrators would do more with less. The test scores became the only measure of how schools performed, and administrators and teachers became adept at preparing their students to pass the test. Book reports, dioramas, and lab experiments became a thing of the past as consultants instructed children on how to pass reading tests without actually reading the text.
Everyone got very good at taking the test. Test scores rose, and in 2003, then-Pres. Bush had Kress help convince Congress to apply the Texas model to the rest of the country with No Child Left Behind. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy even called Kress the president’s “smooth talker.” NCLB became the law of the land, and state spending on standardized testing exploded 160% to $1.1 billion in 2008.
There was just one problem: It wasn’t working back in Texas. It wasn’t that the teachers and students weren’t trying. In fact, they were stressing themselves out over the tests. Nervous stomachs became so common that one test company included instructions for teachers on what to do if a student vomits on the test.
When they weren’t getting sick on the tests, Texas kids kept getting better scores on Texas’ test but failed to make real progress when measured against students in other states. Even more alarmingly for the Information Age employers, 38% of those who showed up to Texas community and technical colleges showed up not ready to take college-level math.
When Gov. Rick Perry saw these results, he didn’t question the basic model, because that would have forced him to put evidence ahead of his pro-business ideology. Instead, he grabbed Sandy Kress with both hands and made him his own. Perry appointed Kress to the Select Committee on Public School Accountability and the Governor’s Business Council and named him chairman of both College Ready Texas and the Governor’s Competitiveness Council.
Perry did everything but put Kress on his payroll, but Kress was making too much money in his day job as a lobbyist for Pearson Education, the company that had been writing the tests in Texas all along, as well as practice tests, classroom handouts and textbooks. And Kress was making so much money for Pearson that even the oilmen were getting jealous. In 2000, Pearson signed a $233 million contract to provide tests for Texas schools, and in 2005 they got another $279 million.
But in 2011, things were dire in Texas. Rick Perry told the Texas legislature to close a $27 billion deficit without raising taxes or dipping into cash reserves, in effect all but ordering lawmakers to cut both schools and health care. But cutting education threatened the testing budget, which Perry, his business backers and, of course, Kress the Pearson lobbyist, could not allow.
Perry dispatched Kress to testify in legislative hearings on his behalf without advertising his connections to the company that stood to gain the most. In DC, a lobbyist masquerading as an administration official would require a special prosecutor and a congressional hearing. But in Texas, it’s just business as usual, a natural extension of applying what people think works in the boardroom to the classroom.
In the end, Perry got his way, and legislators cut $5 billion from the education budget without touching $5 billion in cash reserves, just like Perry wanted. Less well known is the $470 million contract that Perry’s administration signed with Pearson Education to come up with a new test that will hold Texas schoolchildren to a higher standard at the same time that budget cuts are forcing them into increasingly crowded classrooms. If the old test punished failure, this new one—the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—enforces excellence. The new watchword is “rigor,” and for the first time, the tests will make up 15 percent of the grades of high school students in English, history, math and science.
There is no secret how Kress managed to increase funding for his client while forcing legislators to cut school funding for the first time since the Great Depression.
“There was a dude in the back room with a veto pen staring people down,” said Kress.
The new test has incited a revolt in Texas. More than 100 school boards have passed resolutions condemning the “over-reliance” on standardized tests that is “strangling” our public schools, and even Perry’s own education chief has called the “end-all, be-all” treatment of testing as a “perversion” of what schools should be doing and likened the “the assessment and accountability regime” to the “a military-industrial complex.”
The budget negotiations took so long that schools received the new tests late, meaning teachers didn’t have enough time to prepare students to take it. The state had to waive accountability measures for this year. And so many teachers, parents and administrators complained about not being ready to teach the test that school districts have been allowed to exempt their students from the test applying 15% to their grades. All of this means that the result of the New Rigor is that absolutely no one will be held accountable for the test scores, not one school, principal, teacher or student. Accountability in education began as an effort to end social promotion, but all Texas has received so far for Pearson’s $470-million contract is anti-social promotion.
When I send my sons to school in the morning, I will tell them what I’ve always told them about the standardized tests. The tests are an opportunity to write down what they have learned, and I could not care less about the result. They know Rick Perry’s behind all this, so they understand. I’m not sure how to explain who Sandy Kress is.