Texas was in many ways the flagship state for school reform. It’s the first state that began to institute serious sanctions against low student and teacher performance and one of the first to enthusiastically make use standardized tests as the major indicator for school success.

Certain districts, such as Houston, instituted their own stringent evaluations that were, ten years ago or so, seen by many reformers as a good model for the country as a whole. Houston School Superintendent Rod Paige’s “performance contracts,” which rewarded and punished teachers based on standardized test scores, was touted as the “Houston Miracle” and helped catapult Paige to the head of the U.S. Department of Education under George W. Bush.

Well now school reforms in the state might be going in the other direction. The New York Times reports that,

Wrapped up in legislation that reduces the number of state-mandated standardized exams are several measures that redefine the curriculum prescribed for a high school diploma in favor of loosening the required courses for graduation.

The plans have received support from superintendents and public school educators, who say the new flexibility would give students the ability to focus on their interests and encourage them to continue their education. Industry and trade groups are also supportive, saying the changes would get people with the skills they need into the work force sooner.

But not everyone is happy about the changes:

But some state education officials and business leaders said they worried that such legislation could sweep away a decade’s worth of hard-won progress in improving students’ preparation for college and careers.

That’s because the reforms didn’t really work. The standards came under intense criticism from teachers and parents for forcing a standardized curriculum on students and increasing dropout rates (while at the same time the state cut funding for public schools).

The majority of school districts in Taxes passed resolutions criticizing the testing system, even as they were forced to implement it.

Supporters, according to the article, point to the fact that,

In 2011, 52 percent of students met the state’s college-ready standards, which are based on standardized test scores in English and math, compared with 35 percent five years ago. Among economically disadvantaged students, who represent the increasing majority of public school enrollment, 32 percent met the standards, compared with 18 percent five years ago.

That sure sounds impressive, but standardized test score increases don’t mean students are succeeding at colleges and careers any more than they used to. Are more Texas students attending and graduating from college? Are more low-income Texas students finishing college? And what’s happening to those students who don’t go to college?

Many critics contend that the college ready standards don’t work in places where many students have no interest in (or ability to pay for) college. Add to this the fact that the increase in standardized testing may have increased the state’s dropout rate and we see a program that’s impressive on paper but sort of a failure in reality.

As education historial Diane Ravitch put it recently, “Texas is the place where the testing madness started. And Texas is the place where the vampire gets garlic in its face and a mirror waved and a stake in its heart.”

That’s a pretty dramatic way to put it, but she’s got a point. If Texas was the model for school reform across the nation, and Texas has found the results wanting, what does that mean for the rest of the country? [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer