Test-and-Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability Without Equity by John Kuhn

5. Pearson Rising

  • The focus in this chapter is on Marjorie Scardino who as CEO of Pearson received over $10 million in compensation during her last year on the job. She grew up in Texas and worked her way up in the published business to the top of this major conglomerate. As CEO she was responsible for acquiring NCS, a company that had been producing tests and related material for Texas since 1981. By doing so, Scardino had placed Person on the ground floor of what would become a multibillion-dollar industry. Like other states, Texas made changes over time so that test scores went down and punishments increased. Person expanded beyond Texas and kept a stable of lobbyists on retainer stationed in statehouses where testing bills might be up for consideration. As the crown jewel of assessment spending, Texas had no fewer than six lobbyists at one time, some of whom like Sandy Kess were previously associated with the government side of the lobbying effort. In addition to tests, Person also produced textbooks, workbooks, virtual classes for students, and computer-based remediation products.
  • John admits that standardized tests can be valuable tools when used correctly. He also notes that many researchers recognized that they are misused when used as they are by Texas, other states, and the federal government. He uses the analogy of drugs that can be very helpful when used as directed but deadly when misused. The difference is that drugs and their uses must be approved by the FDA. In the case of standardized tests, there is no agency comparable to the FDA to prevent misuse. Since the party in power is able to freely manipulate cut points and other behind-the-scenes details, they can engineer any desired outcome.

6. A Reformer Rebels

  • This is essentially the story of Diane Ravitch. After getting her PhD from Columbia, she found herself on the board of the Fordham Foundation, an educational think tank with a bent towards the corporate reform movement. She too felt that education in the US focused too little on standards and too much on fluff. Thanks to her network, she became the assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan. After that she became a professor at NYU and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in D.C.
  • Something strange, however, happened to her between 2007 and 2010, and in 2010 she unleashed the best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School, which revealed an 180 degree turn in her thinking. She told of what she saw as a plot to undermine American’s confidence in public education. As the voice defending public schools, she was instrumental in the establishment of a number of organizations that are currently fighting reform policies focused on testing and privatization. The reformer of schools has become the reformer of the reform.
  • Kuhn also uses this chapter to lay out the explosion of Texas student withdrawals to homeschooling. It seems that the Texas state education department decided to allow any student be homeschooled without any oversight or requirements. For some students, all they needed to do was badger parents who often chose the path of least resistance to let their child either drop out or engage in easy and inexpensive diploma mill options for high school degrees. (Doug: While Kuhn doesn’t discuss it, I believe that there are some homeschooling operations in Texas and elsewhere that offer a better education to the students involved than public schools. Also seeHome Schooling: More Pupils, Less Regulation for home schooling data in various states.)

7. The Test That Broke the Camel’s Back

  • The test that the title of this chapter revers to is the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. It was the fifth iteration of state testing that started in 1979 with a no-stakes diagnostic exam. It was followed by three other testing regimens prior to STARR that grew more difficult and more punitive. As each new test rolled out, the toll on class time and school budgets also increased. The STAAR tests featured a nation-leading 15 end-of-course exams required for graduation at the same time that unprecedented funding cuts were enacted. This was in addition to tests in grades 3-8.
  • John tells a story of a visit by a state senator who asked if he had any concerns. When John mentioned the lack of consistency between state and federal expectations, he was stunned to find that the senator had no idea as to what the federal expectations were. The problems with the STAAR tests were made worse when the state expected that 15% of the year’s final grade come from the tests even though schools gave credit by the semester. To take some pressure off any single test, the state mandated that students score above a certain number from the total of the three tests related to the same subject. This meant that students could pass all their courses and still not graduate. The ability to retake tests for any reason also allowed kids at the top to play the valedictorian game. A mandate for the tests to be given only online failed as many schools lacked sufficient technology. In short, the clumsy construction of top-down, over punitive, and user-unfriendly tests all but guaranteed a revolution.

8. Rising Tide of Discontent

  • The trend of budget cuts and testing seemed to have gone too far, and as a result, parents started to make their voice heard along with those from the education community. On March 12, of 2011, thirteen thousand marchers descended on Austin to voice their concerns. The clear message was to restore funding and reduce testing. Many recognized that the state was picking winners and losers by the way schools were being funded. Even the state’s commissioner of education, Robert Scott, began to have his doubts when he recognized that testing was the heart of the vampire. This emboldened educators and other supporters and more than 800 school boards adopted an anti-testing resolution as did some chambers of commerce.
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