02/16/2011 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When You Can't Think... Test

So, here's a party game:

Say you have a state with 4.6 million public school students. It's ranked 49th, nationally, in performance on the verbal SAT; 46th in math. Just about 61 percent of students graduate from high school (43rd out of 50), laying the foundation for a last-place finish in the number of residents, 25 years or older, with a diploma hanging on their bedroom wall. About 16 percent of kids are designated as Limited English students, according to the state's education agency. 55 percent of all students are considered economically disadvantaged, while 43 other states spend more on their students. And, to make sure that everybody's learning so so much, so much that the schools can paint big silly ribbons on their facades, or describe themselves with impressive-sounding adjectives, the state gives standardized tests. Standardized tests that are really easy to pass. Standardized tests that are forced upon the brains and lesson plans of teachers with no time left to teach anything that can't be memorized, fast.

So, yes, the party game...what do the state's education people do to reverse its sorry statistics? Here's a hint. They don't improve curriculums beyond the rote memorization model, or spend more cash per pupil, or enrich students with art, or critical thinking or, God forbid, conversations on a tangent. They don't add staff who can help inner city kids with inner city lives. They don't demand that kids learn English, letting them take tests in Spanish until the fifth grade. And, when the governor has to slash more than $135 million for education...oops, silly $15 billion budget shortfall...he and the State Legislature don't save the people who can save the kids. 100,000 public school employees will be fired next year, The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects. I doubt they will be assistant assistant co-vice-superintendents. There are three assistant principals in the school where I teach, which has 1,200 students.

No, instead of changing how they teach, they do something really smart. They change how they test. They create a brand new standardized test, one for each of 12 subjects required for high school graduation. The best part, they make it count for 15 percent of a student's course grade, a grade formerly given by a teacher in a classroom who actually wrote the test and knows the students, not Thomas Jefferson-fearing non-educator figureheads in the state capital. Did I say Thomas Jefferson? Creationism, anybody?

Welcome to Texas. Yee-haw.

It would seem that figuring out how to let teachers teach kids so that they actually learn and retain what they learn would benefit a student population that continually falls at the bottom of national rankings. But, instead of leaving them alone to veer from an inanely-conceived one-size-fits-all curriculum, the government stomps in and reinforces its lockstep educational philosophy, this time affecting high school transcripts. I thought they liked small government in Texas.

Teachers, here, should be given a new title: "Testers." Schools may as well be called, "Test Prep Centers."

For a place with such a lousy track record, you'd think there would be a little humility, a little self-awareness. Maybe, a little notice of how it's done in places where kids do well. It seems to me that when you are not good at something, you sit back quietly and observe. You learn how to get better at it. You don't disrupt, noisily, and force your failed policies, or incarnations of failed policies, onto innocents. What will they do when performance doesn't improve and kids are still reading on a second grade level when they are thirteen?

The better-performing school districts, the ones that don't really pay attention to the current tests because they are so elementary, are outraged. Principals have sent letters home to parents lamenting the 15 percent intrusion, the mention of which, by the way, is difficult to find on any Texas Education Agency document. These schools will continue to give their own end-of-semester tests, most likely, so the students will now have two finals to study for, for one course.

The districts that have to teach students how to take the current test--that's most of them--now have to struggle with preparing kids for what has been described as more "rigorous" testing. To me, that means more rigorous test preparation, less discovery, less ruminating, less time for the brain to do what the brain does. Machines spew back data; brains think, or are supposed to.

The goal of this insanity, according to the PR the state has deployed, is to "put Texas among the top ten states for graduating college-ready students by the end of the decade." Please. In the last decade, graduation rates have dropped nearly five percent, lowering the ranking by eight spots. The years ahead promise endless funds and resources missing from the education budget (including, ironically, test tutors), more kids in fewer classes, and crazed teachers spending their lives at the copy machine, running off "Practice Tests." That is an equation that adds up to continued failure, that is, if you use critical thinking to analyze it.


Legislative Budget Board, Texas Fact Book 2010 (

National Education Association

National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2010