06/20/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

'Life Is Not a Bubble Test'

I sat down this morning to talk with Rep. Bennet Ratliff, the author of HB 2836, the testing-relief bill aimed at elementary and middle school students that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed last week. We talked a bit about his bill but ended up having a great conversation about how testing has gotten out of control in Texas and how we might reign it in.

His bill would have gone a long way to curbing some of the abuses of high-stakes testing on those least able to endure them. Right now, kids in elementary and middle school take a week's worth of 4-hour-long tests. Ratliff's bill (which passed unanimously in the House and Senate) would have cut that in half in elementary school and down to three hours in middle school, but if kids couldn't finish in the allotted time they could take the rest of the day. It was a practical, even merciful reform, so of course it was vetoed.

One aspect of the bill I was unaware of was perhaps closest to Rep. Ratliff's heart. He has a special-needs son, so it's with a empathy and expertise that he tried to change one bit of insanity. Right now, if you teach special ed, you have to write, administer and grade a test for each child. This requires taking a massive amount of time away from what the special ed teacher should be doing, which in Ratliff's mind is teaching these kids life how to tie their shoes.

"We're taking time away from teaching life skills to teach bubble tests," he said. His bill would have relieved teacher of designing individualized tests and handed that responsibility to the Texas Education Agency, again, a logical and humane reform that is now dead.

But Ratliff thinks his bill earned a veto because HB 2836 would have required an independent audit of Pearson Education's $468-million testing contract with Texas. For the first time since high-stakes testing became our education policy, Texas would have examined whether we were getting what we were paying for. And that, Ratliff believes, is what doomed his bill.

"I guess there's someone out there with a $500-million contract who thinks that's a bad idea," he said.

That's a shame. At some point we need to evaluate the evidence to determine whether high-stakes testing is a valid pedagogical theory or, in the words of testing critic Diane Ravitch, "junk science." Coming down on the latter, Ratliff pointed to testimony the Education Committee received from Prof. Walter Stroup of the University of Texas whose research showed that most of what the tests measured was test-taking ability.

"Are we measuring learning or are we measuring test-taking skills?" he asked. "As a state, we need to measure learning."

A civil engineer, Ratliff worries about how the test-taking culture will raise our children to narrow down their choices to the two best options and guess.

"We're raising an entire generation of test-takers," he said. "We don't want them to narrow it down to two and guess. We want them to learn math, science, and English, and social studies."

A former local school board member and a brother of a member of the State Board of Education, Ratliff remembers when standardized testing was used to give teachers diagnostic information about their students. Now our education policy has become beholden to the cult of testing so we can "wave a banner that says "I'm not an acceptable building,' and we've lost focus on the child," he said.

Ratliff wants an accountability system that is accurate, reliable and is part of the system, not the point of the system. "A superintendent in my district liked to say 'A hurdle is not a goal,'" he said, neatly encapsulating his love for sports metaphors and the perversion of high-states testing from its original diagnostic intent.

Under our current system, the test score has become the result and not just a measure of an education. "That doesn't make sense to me," he said. "Life is not a bubble test."

Ratliff is a Republican, as are most of the state legislators who voted in vain for his bill. And because of this, he can't even appear to be thinking to himself what has become obvious to everyone. Education should not be a partisan issue, and opposition to high-stakes testing has certainly become bi-partisan. But a partisan solution might be the only way to get there. Rick Perry has said that he will announce next week whether he's running for re-election.