The Austin Chronicle

Abbott's STAAR Idea

By Richard Whittaker, April 18, 2014, News

Fans of standardized testing are thin on the ground in Texas. That was a lesson learned by Attorney General Greg Abbott when his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Sen. Wendy Davis, accused Abbott of supporting "baby STAAR" tests for 4-year-olds. It's all part of Davis' continuing attack on Abbott's March 31 policy platform, "Educating Texans Plan: Pre-K–Third Grade." After calling the attorney general out for citing white nationalist Charles Murray in a footnote (see "The Education of Greg Abbott," April 11), Davis has shifted to another section of the 22-page document. In it, Abbott's campaign proposes three ways to assess a pre-K student's development. A portfolio of the child's work, daily observation by teachers, and "norm referenced standardized tests."

Few terms unify education policy advocates on the left and right quite as quickly as "standardized tests." So after an April 14 Senate Education Committee hearing on STAAR tests and the implementation of new graduation standards under House Bill 5, Davis held a news conference to savage Abbott's position, saying, "Four-year-olds should be coloring with crayons, not filling in bubbles with No. 2 pencils."

The situation got more complex for Abbott when he invited supporters to an online town hall with former banker Jim Windham, now chair of the pro-high-stakes-testing Texas Institute for Education Reform, and a policy expert for right-wing think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation. When asked about the "Baby STAAR," Windham said, "'Testing' 4-year-olds will not be the same as the assessments we administer to older children. But we do need diagnostics to determine the needs of the child and efficacy of the methodologies being used." At that point, Abbott's policy staffer M.C. Lambeth jumped in to clarify that the testing would be "for informational purposes only and is not standardized testing for 4-year-olds."

Abbott's supporters were trying to repaint these assessments as merely diagnostic implements. But this is Texas, where harmless tests intended as barometers of student achievement have become blunt tools for shutting down schools. There is still plenty of public ire about public education, and that could have serious ballot box impact. In 2012, the nonpartisan, pro-public ed Texas Parent PAC was arguably the most successful endorsing group in both primaries and the general election, and Davis' strategy seems to be to channel that same frustration with the education status quo in 2014. It's a natural fit for Davis, as her first high-profile speech was her 2011 filibuster of cuts to school finance. She started painting Abbott as the anti-education candidate when she challenged him on his defense of those same cuts in court, and followed that with an assault on his dismissive stance on the need for universal pre-K. She said Abbott's limited pilot project rejects established best practices and instead offers "a proposal that would pick and choose which children get a quality ­education."

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