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Jason Stanford: Early critic of school testing was right all along

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Jason Stanford
June 23, 2014

When Robert Scott criticized standardized testing and said that Common Core would nationalize schools, he took heat from both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Texas business lobbyist Bill Hammond, who called Scott a “cheerleader for mediocrity.” But two years later, with states abandoning Common Core and advocates of high-stakes testing now criticizing its misuse, it’s time to admit Scott was right all along.

Scott announced his resignation as Texas Education Commissioner in May 2012, but his public career effectively ended that January when he said standardized testing had become a “perversion of its original intent.” Testing was wagging the dog, and Scott placed the blame on testing companies and lobbyists who have “become not only a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex.”

“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,” said Scott, who stood by his remarks even as others failed to do the same for him.

Many credit Scott’s candor with igniting the Education Spring movement, but it’s to be expected that teachers, parents, students, school boards and administrators would fight back against testing mandates. It’s quite another to see the criticism coming from those who pushed for the mandates in the first place, such as Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chief celebrated by pro-test education reformers, who recently admitted, “Yes, in too many schools and in too many districts, there is an overemphasis on testing.”

Even Sandy Kress, the architect of No Child Left Behind for the Bush administration who now lobbies for Pearson, the test company, agrees with Scott.

“You’ve got drilling and benchmark testing every six weeks,” Kress said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of overtesting in a lot of places. It’s just awful, and it draws really negative reactions from parents, teachers and communities.”

Scott won an early round against testing advocates when he convinced Texas leaders to stay away from Common Core. In a 2009 letter to Sen. John Cornyn, he called it an effort to “adopt a national curriculum and testing system in the United States,” strong words back then. And while Common Core was sold as voluntary state standards, in practice the Obama administration offered states millions of dollars to adopt Common Core with strings that Secretary Duncan attached.

The rollout of Common Core made the debut of healthcare.gov look like D-Day. The country’s largest teachers union, once a key Common Core backer, pulled its support and called the implementation “completely botched.” Duncan blamed “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

It got worse from there. Soon states jumped ship, including Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal was a prominent supporter until this year. Now he sees Common Core as a federal takeover of schools that emphasizes tests at the expense of teaching.

“Common Core is, to my mind, defined by the test,” said Jindal.

Initially, few groups supported Common Core as much as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has spent as much as $2.3 billion on promotional efforts for Common Core, including a series of favorable stories on PBS, according to an investigation by Pando Daily.

That’s why it was such a big shock this month when the Gates Foundation called for a two-year moratorium on using standardized tests to evaluate teachers or to promote students.

“No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition,” said a Gates Foundation official.

Hammond did not respond to repeated inquiries about whether he considered Bill Gates a “cheerleader for mediocrity” and whether he had any reaction to Jindal flipping on Common Core, but that’s OK. He doesn’t have to say it. We know already.

Robert Scott was right.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and The Quorum Report. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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