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May 12, 2013

Standardized testing for profit

NEDERLAND — Public education is an area that all Americans know a lot about. It is presently, and throughout American history, has been, a public service. But that is, under the unbridled capitalistic scheme of things nowadays, screeching to a dead stop.

Public education is quickly becoming a business. The privatization of public education — vouchers paid for with public tax money to send students to private, “charter”, schools, and standardized testing — are becoming the norm.

Standardized testing, I'm quite sure, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Pearson Education is the giant, London-based, corporation that also owns the “Financial Times” and Penguin Books, among other things, and has a five year, $500 million contract with the State of Texas for statewide standardized testing of public school students. It also sells textbooks through its ownership of Prentice Hall Publishing and sells on-line, “virtual”, learning. So it's obviously in business to profit from Texans' tax dollars.

Pearson also had six lobbyists it paid for in Austin in 2011. And, in 2012, Pearson spent at least $4 million on lobbying in Texas alone. And the Republican dominated Texas Legislature voted for Pearson's standardized tests unanimously four years ago.

But Texas school boards, after screaming parents and teachers pushed them — that's at least 776 school boards, covering 85% of Texas students — have lately passed resolutions calling for an end to too much testing. Why? Well, to graduate from high school in Texas, students must pass 15 standardized tests — more than any other state in the US.

Traditionally, Texas trails by nearly all academic standards — except, we lead in the time our students lose in standardized test taking. Rick Perry and his Republican legions cut $5.3 billion from the public school fund, then added even more standardized tests from London-based Pearson. Those tests take up to 45 days out of each school year.

So, it's too damned much, for many reasons. First, that $500 million could be spent on more teachers or raising teacher salaries. Professor Angela Valenzuela, a UT professor of Cultural Studies in education, noted that the pressure to test well — at the expense of a well-rounded education — falls disproportionately on Hispanic and black kids. Of students who failed the STAAR tests last year and took remedial classes over the summer — which were also paid for with local tax money — only 20% passed the retakes.

All of that, of course, is in Texas. Pearson's tests in Georgia ended up with an indictment of the Atlanta public schools superintendent and 34 other employees for “running the largest cheating scandal in the nation” from 2005 to 2010. The cheating indictments were the result of “irregularities” in student standardized test scores.

The chief of the American Teacher Foundation said, “Tragically, the Atlanta scandal harmed our children and crystallized the consequences of our test-crazed policies. Standardized tests today dominate everything else and too often don't even correlate to what students need to know to succeed.”

But, as retired Texas Representative, Scott Hochberg, Democrat from Houston, said, “If lawmakers are looking for answers, they should first look at themselves. As far as I know, Pearson doesn't vote in the Legislature. Pearson didn't decide how many tests there would be. They didn't decide how many tests had to be passed.”

Mike Moses, whose dad, Dr. Morgan Moses, was one of my favorite professors at Stephen F. Austin University, and also a friend of my lady, Patricia Kathleen, is former State Commissioner of Education in Texas, avers, “We may have kicked over the canoe when it came to testing.” Moses believes testing is an important tool, but thinks we've gone too far. He is now of the opinion that the high stakes of testing has made tests too powerful. “I think that the testing programs have grown to a level that they get their own momentum. They kind of perpetuate themselves.”

 Harvard prof, Daniel Koretz, says, “...you can sit down and teach kids how to pass it without them understanding the concepts behind the test.”

Therefore, I'm exceedingly proud of our own, local, State Rep, Joe Deshotel, who sponsored House Bill 5, that passed the house and the Senate. It cuts the tests from 15 to five. Good luck, Joe.

So, give me any question about people, and the answer is “Education”.

And Texas teachers can run the state if they can get together on something as they have proven, with Texas school boards and Texas parents, and their anti-standardized-test position.

Hell, maybe the PTA would do a better job than the Texas Lege.

Neal Morgan of Nederland is a retired educator. Contact him at neal.morgan1@yahoo.com

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