by Mark Schone, NBC News investigative editor
with permission —

A sign warns guests that students are testing, at Akins High School in Austin, Texas, on April 4.

The state that inaugurated the expansion of standardized testing in America’s schools 30 years ago and provided the model for the No Child Left Behind Act has now said enough is enough.

Late last Sunday night, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that cuts the number of standardized tests for the state’s 1.4 million high schoolers from 15 – the nation’s highest total — to five. Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign the bill within days.

“Legislators heard their friends, neighbors and constituents,” said education historian and native Texan Diane Ravitch, a former testing proponent and adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush who has now become testing’s most prominent foe. “This is proof that democracy works.”

Opponents argue that preparing for the exams consumes an increasing portion of the school year and that they don’t develop students’ critical thinking abilities.

Texas is not the only state where expanded testing faces a backlash. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have received waivers from meeting the ambitious goals of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that helped spark an explosion of school testing nationwide.

Eight more states have requested waivers. In November’s election, one of the nation’s foremost proponents of testing and accountability, Indiana public schools chief Tony Bennett, lost his job to a Democratic challenger after one four-year term in a “red” state.

‘Peaks and valleys’

The powerful Texas legislator who helped push through the so-called STAAR tests for high school students says she still believes in testing, and is not convinced there’s been a permanent change in the public mood.

“Thirty years is a long time,” said former State Sen. Florence Shapiro, who chaired the state Senate’s Education Committee before leaving office in 2012. “You have peaks and valleys.”

The so-called “accountability” movement that spawned No Child Left Behind first gained real traction in Texas in 1979. New reading, writing and math exams for third-, fifth- and ninth-graders with the acronym TABS were intended as tools to help schools track the progress of students.

In 1983, Democratic Gov. Mark White asked Texas businessman H. Ross Perot to serve as chairman of a task force called the Select Committee on Public Education. Perot’s group pushed smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay and higher standards for students. His group also recommended that high school students pass a proficiency test to graduate. By 1986, the TABS tests, which had been given in three grades, were replaced by TEAM tests, which were given to six grades, including ninth and 11th.

In 1993, the Texas Legislature passed a package of reforms meant to use testing to provide a measure of how well the state’s public schools were performing. Sandy Kress, a Dallas lawyer and school board member, helped create the package.

George W. Bush became governor in 1995. By the time of his campaign for the presidency at the end of the decade, Texas students were required to take 22 tests between kindergarten and high school graduation.

The state had also increased spending on schools, raised teacher salaries and ended social promotion – and a Rand study said that Texas and North Carolina had showed the most improvements of any states on national tests for fourth- through eighth-graders. Bush touted the “Texas Miracle” during his campaign, and took Sandy Kress to Washington with him as a senior education adviser when he won.

As president, Bush applied the Texas template to the rest of the country. Three days after taking office in 2001, he announced that “No Child Left Behind” would be the “cornerstone of my administration.” On Jan. 8, 2002, he signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which Kress helped craft, requiring all 50 states to test students in seven grades starting in 2003.

The law set lofty targets: Within 12 years, all students were to reach “high standards,” like being proficient in reading by the third grade. Progress would be measured via expanded testing. By the 2005-2006 school year, every state’s public schools were required to test students in math and reading annually from grades three to eight and once in high school. A requirement for science testing went into effect in 2007. Some individual states, meanwhile, created additional tests, as testing became synonymous with accountability and reform.

More than 30 mandated tests In Texas, the number of required tests continued to increase under Bush’s successor, Gov. Perry, eventually reaching a total of more than 30.

But teachers and administrators, long suspicious of the tests, balked at devoting a growing chunk of classroom time to the exam and to “teaching to the test” – drilling students on test subjects and taking practice exams.

The grumbling didn’t dissuade state lawmakers, however, until a previously complacent constituency – parents — got mad.

In 2007, the Legislature voted to add a new group of so-called “end-of-course” exams — meaning tests that students had to take in order to graduate — to the high school menu. The law mandating the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) tests, however, did not go into effect until the 2011-2012 school year.

“I remember my superintendent saying right after it passed, ‘Wait till parents figure this out,’” recalled Susan Kellner, a parent and school board member from the Houston suburbs who would soon become a driving force in an anti-testing group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful School Assessment. “Until you’re in it though, you don’t really get it. “… (You’re) like a frog in the water that was getting warm, and then it started boiling.”

“We had to work off the information we had,” said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who supported STAAR and then supported its rollback. “It’s all evolutionary.”

When the 2011 school year began, Texas high schoolers faced a barrage of new tests. Ninth- through 12th-graders had to take 15 standardized tests before they could graduate instead of four, more than any other state in the nation. STAAR also decreed that the new tests would account for 15 percent of graduating seniors’ grades.

Testing had remained viable with politicians and parents in large part because it seemed to be about improving the performance of troubled schools, holding teachers and administrators accountable for the quality of their students’ education and ensuring that high school seniors deserved a diploma. But now it was going to affect the resumes of college-bound seniors.

Parents reacted noisily, and by the time the 2011 legislative session opened, lawmakers were set to reconsider. Rep. Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands, who had helped push through STAAR as chair of the House Education Committee, led the effort with a bill to disconnect the tests from students’ grades and allow districts to suspend some of the required tests.

‘The Texas House has heard you’

The rollback passed the House by a nearly unanimous vote. In the Texas Senate, however, Florence Shapiro ran the education committee, and the bill never emerged from committee.

When the 2013 legislative session opened, however, Shapiro had retired. Speaker of the House Joe Straus said, “To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing — the Texas House has heard you.”

A new version of the STAAR rollback swept through the Senate and the House with only three dissenting votes. It went into conference so that the Senate and House versions could be attuned, and passed again Sunday night.

Shapiro, who now heads a group called Texans for Education Reform, said neither she nor her group had taken a public stance on the STAAR rollback.

Kellner, the testing opponent, believes the state’s apparent shift in direction has national implications. “We thought it was just Texas parents. We are amazed by how across the country a similar sentiment is starting to bubble up,” said Kellner. “Texas has an important role. We are ground zero. We started all of this.”

But Seliger is more cautious about the implications of the new law. “I’m not prepared to say there won’t be more tests,” he said.


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