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Students Arent Failing Tests, Tests Are Failing Students
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Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said you’re either “moving forward with courageous reforms” and “piloting new and better assessments” (the graduate school term for “standardized tests”), or you’re one of the “arm chair pundits who insist our efforts are doomed to fail.” Duncan exposed his own fallacy when he said, “Many people in the real world, outside the beltway and blogosphere, have tuned out this debate.” Actually, the opposite is true. In the birthplace of the legislative dumpster fire known as No Child Left Behind, most Texans are lining up against test-driven reforms.
Pressured by local school boards, parents, and superintendents, the Texas legislature rolled back the number of tests required to graduate from high school from 15 to 5. Lawmakers even made it illegal for testing lobbyists to give them campaign contributions, a rare move in a state notably hostile to limits on lobbying, business or campaign contributions.
The only thing wrong with these limits on testing, say Texans in a recent poll, is that they didn’t go far enough. The Texas Lyceum polled 1,000 adults and found only 14 percent preferred the status quo. Slightly more (17 percent) liked the recent changes. The shock of the poll is that 56 percent of Texans wanted either to get rid of standardized tests entirely because they encourage “teaching to the test” or leave accountability standards up to local school boards.
That’s a lot of armchair pundits.
Texas hasn’t gone soft. As a parent of two sons in public school, I can vouch that we all still want our kids to get good grades so they can go to good colleges. But the tests, which were promised to bring improvements, are increasingly impediments to education.
As Texas superintendent John Kuhn argues in his upcoming book “Test & Punish,” test-based accountability was substituted for equitable funding in the early 1990s. In effect, Texas solved the problem of underfed athletes by demanding they jump higher. Twenty years later, Sec. Duncan and his allies in Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush and others, are piling reforms atop this unexamined assumption despite a report by the National Research Council that test-based reforms don’t work.
The reason Texans are fighting back is because they don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell them Congress should undo, not reform, No Child Left Behind. In successful schools, testing wastes more than a month of classroom time to practice taking tests. In struggling schools, tests prevent the kids the system was designed to help from getting an education.
Here’s how: More than a third of Class of 2015-a group of Texans equal to the population of Abilene-currently won’t graduate because the students have failed at least one state test and two subsequent retests. In elementary school, a quarter of the state’s fifth graders will be held back because they failed the reading test. In the eighth grade, a third of all black and poor students have failed the state’s math test.
Either those scores are signs that two decades of test-based accountability has failed to improve education for underserved populations, or they are proof that test-based accountability is a faith-based ideology with less credibility than believing that marking your child’s height against a wall causes him to grow. You don’t need to sit in an armchair to think that a system that excludes a third of a state’s population from public education might be a sign that you need to re-examine the basic assumptions underlying education policy.
But not Sec. Duncan. On the same day he was insulting his critics, Sec. Duncan granted a NCLB waiver to Texas. Instead of forcing Texas to meet NCLB’s unattainable requirement that 90 percent of the state’s students would achieve proficiency by 2014, the Dept. of Education will require the state to use student tests to rate teachers.
This will probably work even worse than using student tests to rate students has. To use Sec. Duncan’s phrase, it’s doomed to fail, but what do I know? I’m just a dad with kids in public school, sitting in an armchair, waiting for policy makers to realize that it’s not the students who are failing the tests, but the tests that are failing the students.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.