By Jason Stanford
This might not sound like a big deal, but Pearson has lost the contract for standardized testing in Texas schools. Pearson was there in the 1980s when high-stakes testing spread slowly from Texas to every single public school in this country. But the backlash against testing made Pearson politically toxic, and now they’ve lost the contract in Texas that made their reputation. It’s the end of an error.
Like a military contractor telling the Pentagon that their particular brand of bomb was crucial to preserving democracy, Pearson and its former lobbyist Sandy Kress had been pushing Texas lawmakers for decades for more tests, more often, and in more subjects. Often governors would appoint Kress to state boards and commissions as an education expert, so lawmakers often were ignorant of his conflict of interest.
Then all the testing got a bit too much, and the rebellion was merciless. The Texas legislature banned testing lobbyists from serving on state boards and commissions dealing with “accountability,” a move that seemed directed solely at Kress. What’s more, they banned testing lobbyists from making political contributions. It’s a sad joke I’ve told too many times, but when a Texas politician makes it illegal for you to give him money, you’ve messed up.
Once the political aura surrounding Kress and Pearson turned sour, people started questioning the pedagogical theory that measuring the children against the wall makes them taller. Texas rolled out the a new test a few years ago to make all the kids “college and career ready,” huge cuts to state education funding notwithstanding. Since then, test scores have been flat and have largely correlated to parents’ income and differences in school funding.
It’s also fair game now for people to question the questions, such as that ridiculous test item from a couple years back about the talking pineapple. (Seriously, Google that mess.)
Thomas Ratliff, the vice-chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, raised concerns on two recent questions he got from a teacher whistleblower. Tests are supposed to track the state curriculum, but the recent U.S. history exam asked students about Shirley Chisholm and Bull Connor, two names that do not appear in the curriculum that Ratliff voted on.
The state education agency pointed to a loophole in the law allowing Pearson to test kids on people who were similar to the ones listed in the curriculum. This failed to persuade Ratliff.
“My concern is, if a teacher is required to provide all possible examples of all women who have provided political, social, and economic contributions to American society, that list alone could be nearly endless,” wrote Thomas Ratliff, vice-chairman of the State Board of Education.
He’s got a point. Oprah Winfrey is on that list of important women. If Pearson could ask students about women similar to her, then does a teacher have to do a separate unit on women talk show hosts such as Sally Jesse Raphael and Ellen DeGeneres? And how does any of this determine whether my children (I’ve got two sons in Austin public schools) are “college and career ready”?
Getting rid of Pearson would be a lot more satisfying if Texas had not simply hired another testing company and had instead realized the folly of high-stakes testing. Texas has been doing this for more than a generation, and all we’ve learned is what I heard a south Texas school superintendent say once: Weighing a pig doesn’t make it heavier. What these tests mostly do is measure test-taking aptitude and produce results that aren’t particularly useful.
The problem is that doing this right is hard. Schools in poor neighborhoods need better everything, including funding. Poor parents need prenatal care, and their children need summer school and pre-K. But in a state where most schoolchildren are poor, ensuring equal opportunity is going to be expensive. Demanding that poor kids all pass a test without dealing with poverty just punishes those who don’t start out with advantages.
But this is Texas we’re talking about, so let us celebrate the small victory of Pearson’s demise. Along with Kress, Pearson created—and profited from—this mess. Now they’re gone, and we finally have accountability in education.
God bless Texas.
© Copyright 2015 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.