Would New Governors Change Course on Testing?

K-12 Testing

Texas and Florida, two states that are emblematic of President George W. Bush's test-and-punish education agenda, are embroiled in gubernatorial races where testing has become a top campaign issue and candidates have called for varying degrees of assessment reform. Testing policy has also been debated in the Ohio and Massachusetts governor's races, providing more evidence that there is no consensus on the merits of this approach to education reform.


President Bush modeled the federal No Child Left Behind law on the Texas system, which produced inflated claims of success at closing achievement gaps and reducing dropouts. Now several gubernatorial candidates have questioned the validity of the "Texas Miracle" and called for sweeping change. Their positions appear to have public support. A recent survey found 56 percent of Texans believe there is too much emphasis on testing in public schools (see "Polls," this issue).


Democratic candidate Chris Bell would stop using the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) for rating schools, merit pay, promotion and graduation. "The parents have had it. The teachers have had it. The administration and the school boards have had it," Bell said. "The tail of TAKS (testing) is wagging the dog. No longer are we teaching to the test, we're teaching the test."


Musician, writer and independent candidate for governor Kinky Friedman thinks TAKS should be scrapped. "I really want to do something for the teachers. For starters I want to get rid of the TAKS test," Friedman said. "There's not a teacher in Texas that likes the TAKS test - not a good teacher. This test has a whole generation of kids who aren't quite sure if the Civil War took place here or in Europe - it wasn't on the test," he said. "They've never heard of Mark Twain - he wasn't on the test."


Independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn also opposes using TAKS for grade promotion and would administer it early in the year so it could be used diagnostically.


In Florida, the Democratic nominee for governor, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, said he wants to undo the "educational experiments" of Governor Jeb Bush. Among the experiments he wants to undo are Governor Bush's policy of tying teacher bonuses to FCAT scores and the use of FCAT-based ratings to penalize schools.


In September, Davis proposed moving Florida to a system of multiple measures that would include test scores but also use graduation rates, class size, discipline, parent and teacher input, and other factors. "Right now, we have a false sense of accountability where the assessment of our children, the effectiveness of our teachers and the performance of our schools are judged on the basis of one single standardized test," Davis said.


In both Florida and Texas, the Republican candidates are taking an unapologetic, stay-the-course approach to testing issues. The Florida candidate, Charlie Crist, implemented many of Jeb Bush's education policies as Florida's education commissioner and touts his accomplishments on the campaign trail. In Texas, incumbent Governor Rick Perry claims his education policies and focus on the TAKS have vastly improved Texas public schools.


Education and testing have also emerged as issues in Ohio's closely watched gubernatorial race between Democrat Ted Strickland and Republican Ken Blackwell. Strickland has proposed pulling back from standardized testing and tailoring education needs to the student. His education policy statement charges that standardized testing is in a "state of crisis" and proposes a system of multiple measures rather than high-stakes testing. Blackwell disagrees, saying this would lower standards for black male students.


In Alaska, the Democratic candidate, former governor Tony Knowles, argues that NCLB damages education by prompting schools to "teach to the test" rather than providing children with a well-rounded education. "Something terribly wrong is happening in our school system," he said.


In Massachusetts, both major party candidates for governor, Democrat Deval Patrick and Republican Kerry Healey, say they support using the state test, known as the MCAS, as a graduation requirement. Patrick, however, also says that other measures should be used to ensure the "education of the whole child." Healey has repeatedly accused him of wanting to weaken the state's exit exam, in an effort to paint him as against "accountability." Independent candidate Christy Mihos and the Green-Rainbow Party's Grace Ross unequivocally oppose the MCAS graduation requirement. Ross has been outspoken about the negative consequences of the high-stakes MCAS. "We have a generation now that might not even make it through high school," Ross said in one of the debates. "About a quarter of kids are dropping out, if you go to African American kids you get close to 50 percent, Latino kids we're over 50 percent. The test is a big part of the problem." 


  • For more on survey results, see "Polls" this issue of the Examiner.