Friday, January 25, 2013
School Testing in Retreat | Casey's Last Word
Texas, the birthplace of the national movement toward high-stakes testing of public school children, is in retreat.
Members of the Legislature are lining up to file bills designed to lessen the role of the latest high-stakes testing scheme in determining what grades students get and whether they graduate.
At least four Republican state senators have filed bills, as have Democrats Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Mike Villareal of San Antonio.
This comes after more than two-thirds of the state’s 1,200 school boards have passed resolutions balking at the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR tests.
The revolt was given a huge boost last January when Education Commissioner Robert Scott, having decided to step down after five years as commissioner, decided to follow the old Arab proverb:
He who would speak the truth must first have one foot in the stirrup.
Scott, a longtime supporter of high-stakes testing, told a gathering of educators that we have “reached a point now of having this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak.”
He added: “The assessment and accountability regime has become not only a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex.”
He got that right.
Texas’s current 5-year contract with Testing-Giant Pearson to develop and analyze our tests is worth nearly half a billion dollars.
They have six lobbyists in Austin to keep the funds flowing.
Yet when the Legislature a few years ago said it wanted the tests to tell us not only how students were doing, but how much they improved from the previous year, Pearson was unable to do so.
Instead, they came up with a scheme, called the Texas Projection Measure, that was so convoluted that students could get zero on some tests and still be counted as passing.
The Projection Measure was so silly that it was killed – after some school districts awarded bonuses based on its badly flawed projections.
But there has always been silliness in Texas’s march toward school accountability.
It began with the first measurement of teacher skills.
Back in the mid-1980s, school administrators were required to give teachers several weeks’ notice that on a particular day they would sit in the classroom and rate the teacher’s performance according to a standardized lengthy check list.
Did they speak clearly?
Did they make eye-contact with the students?
Did they call on a variety of students.
And on and on.
Left off the check list: Were the students learning?
The result: Our students still weren’t succeeding, but all our teachers were above average.
So we started testing students with tests such as TAAS and TAKS and now STAAR.
Every half dozen years or so, however, the test had to be changed.
The official line was that it was to ramp up expectations.
But there was also this simple fact:
Teachers, under heavy pressure from principals under pressure, were teaching the test more effectively every year.
This was demonstrated by the predictably low performance the first year of every new test.
Last year, STAAR’s first year, students were given passing grades in some tests for getting fewer than half the answers right.
For the first time writing was tested, and nearly 40 percent didn’t pass the very basic test.
And after 20 years of high-stakes testing, fewer than half of Texas’s graduating students are ready for college, according to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Nobody should pine for the days before high-stakes testing, when some schools in poor areas had such low expectations that they didn’t offer algebra.
But the high-stakes question for the Legislature is this: If this system of accountability isn’t helping get the results we want, shouldn’t we try something else?