Rick Perry has a funny way of celebrating Father's Day. Most people give their dads neckties, expensive bottles of brown liquor, or the simple pleasure of an uninterrupted nap on the couch. Perry likes to veto popular bills. In fact, Perry might have imperiled his potential reelection bid by vetoing anti-corruption funding, an equal pay measure, and a bill to protect the University of Texas from political interference. Getting less attention -- but guaranteeing more harm -- is his veto of a bill to ease testing in elementary and middle schools.
No Child Left Behind requires that states test kids in reading and math every year in grades 3-8 and in science less often. Each round of testing consumes an entire school week for the real thing and two extra weeks benchmark (dress rehearsal) tests, and then practice tests on top of that. In practice, Texas elementary students are taking their equivalent of an SAT test 15 times in a year, and that's on top of the worksheets, test consulting and practice tests. A Texas school year is 180 days long, and testing eats up more than a month of that.
Even worse than time-consuming, all this testing is pointless. A student who passes his test one year is overwhelmingly likely to pass the next year. What we learn from a group of 3rd graders is substantially what we learn from the same group of students in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades -- and at great expense to the taxpayers. We know where Texas schools are falling short, but "accountability" assumes that repeatedly testing the same problem will solve the problem as if X-raying a broken leg five times will heal a bone.
HB 2836 would have forced the state to prove that these tests, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR tests, were valid measures of accountability, a basic question policy makers have never asked. Additionally, HB 2836 would have cut the length of the tests administered to young children to two hours from four, which is as long as the LSAT, the test given to prospective law students, takes.
Besides freeing up huge chunks of the school year to allow for actual instruction, this bill would have lifted what has become a punishing psychological burden on children who still sleep in superhero pajamas. Stress-induced vomiting is so common that the tests come with instructions for teachers on what to do when it happens. What a Texas child knows of rigor in elementary school is the overwhelming fear of failing.
My 9-year-old's teacher found her class was wound so tightly about the STAAR test ("Tears, lots of tears early on," she said) that she referred to it as the "Test-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" after the villain in the Harry Potter series. When giving the district-mandated benchmark tests, she told her students to first write "Stupid Benchmark!" on the cover, and when giving the real test she used aromatherapy, shoulder rubs and head scratches to get them to relax.
Perry vetoed HB 2836 because of another provision requiring a study of the State Board of Education, the elected body responsible for setting curriculum standards. The SBOE has become so radicalized by social conservatives that it voted down a proposal that students examine why the Founding Fathers "protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others." Nationally, this is known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In Texas, it's heresy.
Perry's veto message stated, "Maintaining our rigorous standards is crucial to ensuring Texas students have the fundamental building blocks necessary to succeed in their education and ultimately compete in a global economy."
By conflating testing with curriculum, Perry's veto of a testing relief bill aimed at the playground set revealed that he doesn't understand what happens in Texas elementary schools. Children young enough for recess do need rigor, but they need it in a nurturing environment and not in a state-mandated pressure cooker.
Perry is right that we need an educated workforce to compete in a global economy, but not one skilled at filling in the right little ovals and afraid of making mistakes. A generation paralyzed by the fear of failure is incapable of the trial and error necessary to get us to Mars, to cure cancer and to invent The Next Big Thing. The only thing Perry accomplished with his veto is messing with the minds of Texas children. A father of two, he should know better.
This post originally appeared on Jason Stanford's blog,Behind Frenemy Lines.
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