What the Texas backlash against high-stakes testing means for Oklahoma (Guest Blog: John Thompson)

Dr. John Thompson taught for 19 years in Oklahoma City.  He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post, School Matters, Living in Dialogue, and elsewhere.  His book, Getting Schooled: Battles Within and Without the Urban Classroom, is under consideration at a major press.

Photo by Shannan Muskopf used under a Creative Commons license.
Photo by Shannan Muskopf used under a Creative Commons license.

The test-driven accountability of No Child Left Behind was born of Governor George Bush’s faith that teachers with “High Expectations!” can overcome the legacies of generational poverty. Data-driven “reform” was conceived from the spinning of numbers in Houston that was then proclaimed the “Texas Miracle.” Even today, the market-driven theories of Governor Jeb Bush are being imposed on schools in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

In Texas, the bubble-in mania has crested. Superintendents in 818 of the Lone Star State’s school districts have joined teachers, parents, and students in Washington, Georgia, New York, and Massachusetts in protesting the educational malpractice encouraged by standardized testing. On February 23, I joined thousands of Texans in the Save Texas Schools rally in Austin.

Former Education Commissioner Robert Scott told the crowd that continued testing is not like the tail “wagging the dog.” It is, “the flea at the end of the tail of the dog trying to wag the dog.” Scott had once supported testing but, “I had to turn in my reformer card because I looked at it as a flea circus,” he said. “They are selling two ideas and two ideas only: No. 1, your schools are failing, and No. 2, if you give us billions of dollars, we can convince you [of] the first thing we just told you.”

Superintendent John Kuhn put the testing debacle in a historical perspective. Today’s so-called school reformers “have forgotten that good teachers actually exist. They spend so much time and effort weeding out the bad ones that they’ve forgotten to take care of the good ones. This bitter accountability pesticide is over-spraying the weeds and wilting the entire garden.

I was particularly impressed by the superintendents who described the unintended effects of high-stakes testing. Colleges do not want high school graduates who, increasingly, are only trained to take tests and write according to their formula. That message was echoed by Joe Arnold, Chair of the Workforce Committee for the Texas Manufacturing Association. If testing was working so well, he asked, why would the state need to recruit outside talent for 21st century jobs?

The rally was followed by a panel discussion sponsored by the Texas Observer at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Policy. Virtually every “reform” that is being tried in Oklahoma has already failed in Texas. Trinity University’s Michael Soto, who serves on the State Board of Education, started the discussion with data from Bexar County, where 42 percent of charters are rated academically unacceptable. Then Jane Lincove, of the University of Texas, reported that the state’s $200 million a year incentive pay program produced no positive effects, and incentives using value-added produced a negative effect. Lincove’s research indicated that properly developed incentives could be beneficial, but that flawed plans could create disincentives for teaching at challenging schools.

Julian Vasquez Heilig then punched holes in “reformers’” claims that Texas had increased graduation rates from 75.4 percent to 86 percent. This supposed miracle was due to excluding 50,000 school leavers, claiming that these low-income students went back to Mexico, transferred to private school or, perhaps, discovered the joys of online home schooling.

Heilig’s research documents how the apparent success that Texas has shown on its own tests has not translated into improvements in the ACT, SAT, or NAEP. Outcomes for African-Americans appear to have actually declined. Since 8th grade NAEP read scores are the single most important metric, I was struck by his summary of that measure. Texas was the only state to have declined from 2002 to 2009, dropping eight spots in its national ranking.

Heilig’s data on charter school attrition is another must-read for Oklahomans thinking that Texas’s “Cheapista” policy of choice is cost effective. Texas charters lose up to 70 percent of their students annually.

Also relevant to Oklahoma is Heilig’s explanation of how Jeb Bush’s Florida “Miracle” is largely due to the “Enronization” of data. Because so many 3rd graders are held back in the Sunshine State, its 4th grade scores look great. The longer students stay in Florida schools, their performance grows worse relative to the nation.

Our education system is not broken, but the Daily Oklahoman’s analysis of Oklahoma’s A-F Report Card, which was based on Jeb Bush’s Florida report card, also shows how we have not found a solution for urban systems serving intense concentrations of poverty. Perhaps it once made some sense to use test-driven accountability as a cheap and easy way to improve poor schools. Bubble-in testing is no longer inexpensive, and its damage to our educational values is far greater than the tests’ price tag. Now is the time for Oklahomans, also, to reclaim our schools.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

One thought on “What the Texas backlash against high-stakes testing means for Oklahoma (Guest Blog: John Thompson)

  1. The unfortunate happening of an apparent one party system of government, which essentially is what we have in Oklahoma,the governing party feels they don’t have to listen to anyone other than the people with big money.

    As money for education continues to be decreased here, the state remains stuck in the bad developments of NCLB.

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