Mute the Messenger
When Dr. Walter Stroup showed that Texas’ standardized testing regime is ﬂawed, the testing company struck back.
Rebellions sometimes begin slowly, and Walter Stroup had to wait almost seven hours to start his. The setting was a legislative hearing at the Texas Capitol in the summer of 2012 at which the growing opposition to high-stakes standardized testing in Texas public schools was about to come to a head. Stroup, a University of Texas professor, was there to testify, but there was a long line of witnesses ahead of him. For hours he waited patiently, listening to everyone else struggle to explain why 15 years of standardized testing hadn’t improved schools. Stroup believed he had the answer.
Using standardized testing as the yardstick to measure our children’s educational growth wasn’t new in Texas. But in the summer of 2012 people had discovered a brand-new reason to be pissed off about it. “Rigor” was the new watchword in education policy. Testing advocates believed that more rigorous curricula and tests would boost student achievement—the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory. But that’s not how it worked out. In fact, more than a few sank. More than one-third of the statewide high school class of 2015 has already failed at least one of the newly implemented STAAR tests, disqualifying them from graduation without a successful re-test. As often happens, moms got mad. As happens less often, they got organized, and they got results.
Texas Education Commissioner, long an advocate of using tests to hold schools accountable, broke from orthodoxy when he called the STAAR test a “perversion of its original intent.” Almost every school board in Texas passed resolutions against over-testing, prompting Bill Hammond, a business lobbyist and leading testing advocate, to accuse school officials of “scaring” mothers. State legislators could barely step outside without hearing demands for testing relief. So in June 2012, the Texas House Public Education Committee did what elected officials do when they don’t know what to say. They held a hearing. To his credit, Committee Chair Rob Eissler began the hearing by posing a question that someone should have asked a generation ago: What exactly are we getting from these tests? And for six hours and 45 minutes, his committee couldn’t get a straight answer. Witness after witness attacked the latest standardized-testing regime that the Legislature had imposed. Everyone knew the system was broken, but no one knew exactly why.
Except for one person. Stroup, a bookishly handsome associate professor in the University of Texas College of Education, sat patiently until it was his turn to testify. Then Stroup sat down at the witness table and offered the scientific basis behind the widely held suspicion that what the tests measured was not what students have learned but how well students take tests. Every other witness got three minutes; it is a rough measure of the size of the rock that Stroup dropped into this pond that he was allowed to talk and answer lawmakers’ questions for 20 minutes.
A tenured professor at UT with a doctorate in education from Harvard University, Stroup isn’t frequently let out of the lab to address politicians in front of cameras. He talks with no evident concern that he might upset the powerful, and he speaks so quickly that his sentences have to hurry to keep up as he darts down tangents without warning. He taught in classrooms for almost a decade—it must have been a nightmare for his students.But his testimony to the committee broke through the usual assumption that equated standardized testing with high standards. He reframed the debate over accountability by questioning whether the tests were the right tool for the job. The question wasn’t whether to test or not to test, but whether the tests measured what we thought they did.
Stroup argued that the tests were working exactly as designed, but that the politicians who mandated that schools use them didn’t understand this. In effect, Stroup had caught the government using a bathroom scale to measure a student’s height. The scale wasn’t broken or badly made. The scale was working exactly as designed. It was just the wrong tool for the job. The tests, Stroup said, simply couldn’t measure how much students learned in school.
Stroup testified that for $468 million the Legislature had bought a pile of stress and wasted time from Pearson Education,the biggest player in the standardized-testing industry. Lest anyone miss that Stroup’s message threatened Pearson’s hegemony in the accountability industry, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) brought Stroup’s testimony to a close with a joke that made it perfectly clear. “I’d like to have you and someone from Pearson have a little debate,” Aycock said. “Would you be willing to come back?”
“Sure,” Stroup said. “I’ll come back and mud wrestle.”
But that never happened. Stroup had picked a fight with a special interest in front of politicians. The winner wouldn’t be determined by reason and science but by politics and power. Pearson’s real counterattack took place largely out of public view, where the company attempted to discredit Stroup’s research. Instead of a public debate, Pearson used its money A Prof Debunks Standardized Testing & Pearson Strikes Back: