If there's one person in America most responsible for the stress our children face while filling in little ovals with their No. 2 pencils, it may be Sandy Kress. Kress was the architect of "No Child Left Behind" and later became a lobbyist for Pearson, the testing company. But as high-stakes testing faces a national backlash, lawmakers in Texas - birthplace of such standardized exams - are poised to give up on some testing and on Kress.
The Atlanta testing scandal in which the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year was indicted for racketeering has prompted questions about whether corruption in the classroom is an inevitable result of making test scores the primary focus of public education. "Tragically, the Atlanta cheating scandal harmed our children and it crystallizes the unintended consequences of our test-crazed policies," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
Concern is spreading. In Seattle, teachers refused to administer a state-wide test they saw as unfair. In Providence, high school students dressed up like zombies and marched through downtown to protest a graduation requirement to pass standardized tests. Even Bill Gates, long a proponent of education accountability, recently opposed the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.
But nowhere is the movement against high-stakes testing as strong as it is in Texas, where it all began.
A high school test first administered last year was so tough that 27 percent of Texas' entire ninth grade failed the test and the retake and now can't graduate. In a recent poll commissioned by a teachers union, reducing the emphasis on standardized testing ranked higher than raising teacher pay and restoring budget cuts.
Today, 86 percent of the state's school boards have adopted resolutions opposing the over-reliance on high-stakes testing. Gov. Rick Perry's last education commissioner called testing a "perversion of what is intended." A group of mothers, angry that a new testing regime forced high school students to pass 15 standardized tests before graduation, lobbied the legislature with such vehemence that politicians began calling them "Mothers Against Drunk Testing."
The defenders of the testing status quo are now down to two: Kress, and Bill Hammond, a top business lobbyist whose organization is involved with Pearson testing.
Kress first advised George W. Bush as governor. When Bush became president, Kress joined him as a senior adviser and helped win over support for No Child Left Behind from Sen. Ted Kennedy. With the bill signed, Kress became a lobbyist representing Pearson. In Texas, he took on an insider role in Perry's administration, serving on state boards and commissions which advised more testing as a way to improve schools. Few seemed to mind his dual role as education adviser and Pearson lobbyist. It didn't cause a stir when Kress testified before the legislature in favor of more testing. At the same time, Pearson won increasingly large contracts that ended up totaling $980 million.
But poor test scores and intense pressure finally led to the backlash now before the Texas legislature. Last month, the Texas House passed a testing relief bill that included two amendments aimed at Kress. One amendment would ban testing lobbyists from serving on state education advisory boards. The other amendment would make it a misdemeanor for a testing lobbyist to make political contributions. When politicians make it a crime to give them money, something's up. The bill is now before the Texas Senate.
It is worth recalling that Bush was able to pass No Child Left Behind by noting that tests worked in Texas when he was governor. But Texas no longer believes in its own miracle and isn't buying what Sandy Kress is selling. Maybe Congress shouldn't either.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.