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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 02/07/2012

Texas schools chief calls testing obsession a ‘perversion’

The Republican education commissioner of Texas, Robert Scott, might not be the first person you’d think would find common ground with California’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, but Scott has savaged high-stakes testing in language that would make Brown smile.

Speaking to the Texas State Board of Education late last month, Scott said that the mentality that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be.

What’s more, he called “the assessment and accountability regime” not only “a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex.” And he attacked the Common Core Standards Initiative as being motivated by business concerns.

“What we’ve done in the past decade, is we’ve doubled down on the test every couple of years, and used it for more and more things, to make it the end-all, be-all,” Scott said. “... You’ve reached a point now of having this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak.”

These sentiments — which he repeated in similar language at a conference of school administrators a few days later — go well beyond the common sentiment in Texas Republican politics that public education policy should be the domain of state and local officials and not the federal government. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has famously feuded with President Obama’s administration over the federal government’s role in school reform.

Scott’s attack on testing mania sounded like Brown, who has attacked test-based school reform and said he wants to reduce the number of standardized tests students take. (You can see the whole video of Scott speaking at the meeting by going here and clicking on “view discussion of item 1.” And here’s Scott at the school administrators conference.)

Scott made the comments amid growing concern among parents, educators and even business leaders in the state about a new standardized testing regime called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, STARR, which is the successor to the maligned Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS. Under the new system, 15 percent of the grades of high school students in English, history, math and science will be based on test results.

Here are some of the things that Scott said at the board meeting late last month, taken from the video and from the Dallas Morning News:

“I’ve been a proponent of standardized testing, for some things, and I want to continue to use it, for some things. But we have overemphasized it, and even if we haven’t overemphasized it specifically at the state level, the perception out there is that it is the end-all, be-all, and that is causing behavior in many cases, to compound upon itself, and even if that’s not the intent at the state level, that’s reality. And perception is reality, so once they perceive that is all that counts, that it’s all we’re looking at, that’s all they focus on.”

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After board member George Clayton of Dallas commented that at some schools testing is paramount, Scott replied:

“I would only say that is a perversion of what is intended, and I can say that I’ve been to many schools where that is not the case. “And I do agree with you that in many schools that is the case, and that’s why I’ve been very supportive of the Visioning Institute bill that is going to give this agency the authority to get 20 districts to serve as pilots for a new accountability system that maybe doesn’t focus on testing every kid every year and maybe does sampling like the NAEP, and allows us to think beyond this current system that we have, because we do have many districts and many campuses that are overemphasizing testing.

“Testing is good for some things. It is good for data, it is good for instructional practices, it is good for feedback, it is not the end-all, be-all of the universe. But it is important ... in making the system care about kids. I say this all the time: Parents care about kids, teachers care about kids, individuals in this room care about kids.

“The system doesn’t give a damn about kids unless you make it care. And that’s really what the idea of testing and accountability was about, was to make the system care about kids, about different subgroups of kids, and not leave one subgroup to be stranded while the law of averages makes the campus look great.

“Now I agree that we’ve reached a point where there’s going to be a backlash against standardized testing.....”

Clayton then said: “Perversion”?

And Scott responded: “I know that’s a strong word.”

But he didn’t take it back.

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“The assessment and accountability regime has become not only a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex. And the reason that you’re seeing this move toward the “common core” is there’s a big business sentiment out there that if you’re going to spend $600-$700 billion a year in public education, why shouldn’t be one big Boeing, or Lockheed-Grumman contract where one company can get it all and provide all these services to schools across the country.”

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“We are trying to figure out a way to strike the balance between what the state requires and the reaction from the local level that might overdo exactly what you’re talking about -- too many formative assessments, too many mini-TAKS tests, too many STAAR tests during the school year. What we’ve tried to do with standards-based assessments is provide a guidepost and provide some quality control across the state. That works in many cases., and in many cases it does not. ...

“What we’re trying to do is set a benchmark for standards and for human behavior, and human behavior can’t always be dictated from Austin, Texas, as much as we try. But what you see at the local level is an attempt to enforce that through a regime of mini testing that won’t work.

“If you look at it, this is where the frustration comes from -- you know, “drill and kill,” and teachers getting burnout. I don’t know how to stop that behavior, other than to say that’s not the intent, and to tell them, “It’s not going to work.”

“When you fundamentally get back to it, it’s the quality of the teacher in the classroom, it’s the quality of professional materials, the alignment of professional development, all of those things that go into the development of a quality classroom.

“Simply regurgitating a mini-TAKS test or a mini-STAAR test every two weeks I don’t believe is going to be ultimately effective and ultimately provide a quality education. I agree with you on that. Again, I’m trying to figure out a way to impart that that’s meaningful. ...

“What we’ve done in the past decade, is we’ve doubled down on the test every couple of years, and used it for more and more things, to make it the end-all, be-all. ... You’ve reached a point now of having this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak.

“All you have to do is kill that, and you’ve killed a whole lot of things. I think there needs to be a balance here.”

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