Reasonable testing AND high standards: can’t we have both?

Last week, I embarked on a brief history of accountability in Texas. Before we return to finish that history lesson, it’s time to talk about what’s happening right now in Texas.

In the last week, we’ve seen considerable development that leaves Jessica and me even more frightened about the direction Texas schools are headed. House Bill 5 passed the House this week, reducing the number of tests required for students from 15 to 5. That’s something we support in theory. But upon closer investigation, HB 5 also reduces graduation requirements and appears to lower standards across the board.

One step forward, two steps back? Depends on who you ask.

Education reporter Bill McKenzie of the Dallas Morning News fears we’re dumbing down graduation requirements and crippling kids’ chances at a meaningful high school diploma. He has a point. Though I believe (see last week’s post) that McKenzie buys too easily into the idea that Texas’ march toward accountability has resulted in a better education for children, his fear is not unfounded.

Advocates who point out much of what we were shocked to learn – how much Texas spends on testing and how we test more than any other state, by nearly double – cheered the introduction of HB 5 and the other bills like it. They point to much of what I discussed last weektests alone aren’t credible evidence that we’re making gains for students.

Legislators in favor of the bill laud the changes as providing more flexibility. Currently, all students must take 4 years of high school math, science, English, and social studies – or get a parent’s signature to waive that requirement. This bill opens up different tracks, including a more limited diploma that doesn’t require even Algebra II. Proponents say that is more realistic for some students, and that providing all students with options will help them graduate more ready for their chosen career path, even if that doesn’t involve a 4-year degree.

Detractors – such as Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business, and education advocates including the Education Trust and La Raza – argue that this bill is doing a disservice to students, especially low income and minority students. Hammond argues that “parents are being sold a bill of goods by the groups that supposedly represent their interests” without realizing they’re signing up for a reduction in standards that could hurt their students.

So what to make of all of this? 

As Washington Monthly‘s Daniel Luzer points out, “just because the state has high standards doesn’t mean the standards are good.” Are they the right standards? Are we pushing kids to learn higher level skills, or coaching them to pass a test that supposedly tells us they’ve learned those skills?

The part of me that cheered for fewer tests has been replaced with one that wishes we were asking different questions. Like, what do our kids really need to learn? What is the purpose of an education? Is it to learn skills? To be job-ready? Or to learn what it means to be educated? To learn to think and question?

In the end, I for one would fight for higher, smarter standards AND fewer, smarter standardized tests. Can’t we have both?*


*It’s worth noting that Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) tried to push for a compromise that would keep standards as they are but still reduce the number of tests. His word on reducing graduation standards? “Some kids are capable of more than they may believe they’re capable of if we believe in them. And I just wish that we would presume they’re capable of it and default them into the highest path possible, and let them opt out if they choose to with their family support.” His amendment was struck down.


PS. There’s no shortage of conversation on this topic. If the links above weren’t enough, check out more commentary from KUT News, Bill McKenzie, and the Texas Tribune.


What’s all the Fuss About Anyway?

In a recent article, the Texas Tribune published a troubling assessment in their ongoing series titled “Beyond the Data: A closer Look at Texas Schools.” The article reflected on the past 10-years of TAKS exams and highlighted some disturbing trends lurking below students “soaring” scores.  True, last year 90% of students aced their 11th grade exit exams, an encouraging increase from the 70% who passed in 2003. But what do these numbers actually represent?

Unfortunately, student’s success with the state standardized tests has not translated to the national level. Scores on both the SAT and ACT have dropped or plateaued and Texas students remain behind the national average on both the SAT’s and the NEAP (except in 4th and 8th grade math).  This calls into question what exactly the state standardized tests are measuring, or more importantly what skills the passing 90% are gaining. (Let us assume for the time being that standardized tests are an accurate measure of achievement and that using one standardized test to measure another is an effective means of assessing knowledge gained).

How do we explain these discrepancies? The Tribune article points out an important distinction between TAKS exams, which “gauge mastery of Texas curriculum standards” and national assessments like the SATs and the ACTs which “focus on higher order thinking skills like problem solving and reading comprehension”. But what good is mastering Texas curriculum if students are not learning to problem solve and think for themselves? What good will memorization be at the college level, or more importantly, in the real world? “We are still teaching too much stuff as opposed to teaching kids how to think and process,” says Timothy Jones, an education professor at Sam Houston State University. Jones goes on to state that until students “learn how to understand and find information on their own rather than memorizing straight facts” these discrepancies in state and national level tests will persist.

As a response, Texas is now moving to the STAAR exams (given to 3-9th grade students), which are designed to combine the teaching of “higher order skills” while still adhering to the Texas curriculum. But as our earlier post reveals, Texas state tests have been claiming to measure problem solving and critical thinking skills since the introduction of the TAAS exams in the 1990s. How then are we to believe that the STAAR exams will be any different?

One thing that continues to be disturbingly absent from this discussion is a closer look at testing in general. Is high-stakes testing an effective measure of achievement? And more importantly, are standardized tests a good measure of long-term success in college and beyond?

Stay tuned as we take a closer look at testing as we know it…..

Laws are like sausages, its better not to see them being made….

Erin and I arrived at the capitol on the 26th of March excited to see the House floor vote on one of our bills (HB5). As a relative novice of the legislative process I assumed (naively I now know) that we just might get to see some fiery debates about this controversial issue. Instead, things started out with over an hour of pomp and circumstance followed by a grueling nine hours (no we did not stay for all of it) during which a total of 117 amendments were proposed.

After about an hour of guest introductions and congratulations to the likes of the East Bernard High School football team who recently won the 2012 Division 2 state championship, Erin and I were starting to wonder if we had stumbled into the wrong room (the capitol is a bit of a labyrinth). When HB5 finally took the floor we thanked our lucky stars and again turned our attention to tracking HB5s bid for victory:

The first amendment, proposed by Representative Aycock outlined a number of semantic changes and procedural edits that we eventually got lost in. The next three amendments proceeded to amend each other, with Representatives Branch, Rodriguez and Villarreal offering the second amendment to amendment number 1 and Representative Fisher offering a substitute amendment for amendment number two. This went on until the  5th amendment proposed by Representative McClendon which amended a portion of the house committee report on HB5.  Sadly the amending of amendments lasted longer than Erin and I and we sulkily made our way to class with very little idea of what HB 5 would look like by the end of the day.

So what DID happen?

HB5 finally passed with a vote of 145 to 2 on Wednesday the 27th after a long and arduous process the day before. Checking back at the end of the day on Tuesday Erin and I were aghast to see the stunning 117 amendments that were proposed. More frustrating than anything else was how difficult it was to untangle the implications of the many changes made to HB5 (not for lack of trying). Broadly speaking the passing of HB5 promises to reduce the number of standardized tests while increasing curriculum flexibility to allow students to pursue more individualized interests as they prepare for both collage and the workforce. And yet, despite our careful attention to this issue over an entire semester and our best efforts to bear witness to the passing of HB5 we remain frustrated and confused about the nuances of what HB5 really has to offer.

Next up, senate floor

PS For anyone looking to do a little light reading, please feel free to check out the transcript of the entire process




Man Your Battle Stations: HB 5 Vote TODAY!

Word on the street: Texas House of Representatives will debate and vote TODAY on HB 5

HB 5 is, according to many, a long overdue response to mounting opposition from both parents and educators condemning the current testing regime in Texas. In short, HB 5 seeks to:

  • Reduce the number of end of course exams from 15 (more than twice any other state) to 5
  • Change requirements for graduation to endorse a wider variety of subjects and “pathways” to the future
  • Implement a new accountability system that evaluates schools on more than just their standardized test scores. Imagine recognizing community and student engagement as important measures of success!?

As reported by the Texas Tribune, HB 5 will be up today for what is likely to be a long, controversial debate between those who oppose Texas’ agressive high-stakes testing and those who believe these changes might risk reducing standards and reversing gains that some (including education reform organization The Education Trust and La Raza United) perceive as being made for low-income students.

As the Daily Texan is careful to point out, reducing the number of standardized tests does not fix the underlying issues of budget cuts, massive teacher layoffs and actual classroom instruction BUT many believe it represents an important step towards salvaging the sinking ship that is Texas public education.

Interested in adding your voice to the conversation? Go HERE for the name and number of your state representative.

Click HERE for a more detailed summary of what HB 5 proposes to accomplish and STAY TUNED for more on the ongoing debate over the removal of the 4X4 graduation plan.

Accountability in Texas, Part 1: Hardly a Miracle

I began this post looking to write a short history of testing in Texas public schools, in broad strokes.  As someone who used to work in public education policy, I was already jaded about testing. I expected to find that it didn’t measure much, that it wasted valuable classroom time, and that it was being skewed in importance.

Turns out that is just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t think it was possible, but I’m more jaded about testing than I was when I started.

As early as 1979, Texas began tying state tests (then the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills or TABS) to the curriculum taught in classrooms. In 1983, 9th graders became subject to a requirement that they keep retaking TABS every year until they pass. In addition, test results for each school and district became public information. These moves put pressure on schools to help students pass these standardized tests, and thus began an era of high-stakes testing that has only gained momentum.

In 1984, the nature of testing shifted to measure “minimum” skills rather than so-called “basic competencies”. Sanctions for students were added – passing the new TEAMS (Texas Education Assessment of Minimum Skills) became required for high school graduation. Yet another shift in 1990 to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) intended to use testing to measure problem-solving and critical-thinking skills rather than just “minimum” skills, and purported to increase the rigor of the tests.

When TAAS results started getting attention in the late 1990s, the buzz about the “Texas Miracle” began gathering steam.

Based on the results of TAAS tests, Texas appeared to be making great strides in increasing student achievement and reducing dropouts. Racial gaps appeared to have narrowed. Then-Governor Bush touted the results in his run for President and buzz ensued across the country.

How were they doing it? It turned out, according sources ranging from CBS’ 60 Minutes to academics and education advocates, to be not a miracle but a gross misrepresentation of the truth and a flawed test.

Dropouts in Houston were falsely reported has having obtained GEDs – keeping dropout rates (on paper) low.

Students with lower grades (mostly Black and Latino) were prevented from taking the test by being held back as freshmen, thus avoiding the 10th grade TAAS test. According to academic Walt Haney: By the late 1990s, nearly 30% of Black and Hispanic students were “failing” grade 9 and required to repeat that grade.”

The number of students excluded from testing based on Special Education waivers steadily increased – another way of cutting out students whose scores might drag down test averages.

All of this on top of a test whose cut scores were “arbitrary” and whose scoring was likened to “creative accounting” by the Texas Observer. And as for student gains – they simply didn’t measure up when compared to Texas’ student’s scores on SATs and national tests (like NAEP).

In short – the miracle was no such thing. 

Check out this damning report for more detail, including teacher testimony about teaching to the test and how districts felt forced to game the system.

Next up: TAKS, the transition to STAAR and the backlash against testing – led by an unexpected source. Plus, info on the bills currently in the legislature that aim to change how accountability in Texas works. 



Bernstein, J. (August 30, 2002). Test Case: Hard Lessons from the TAAS. The Texas Observer. Retrieved from:

Cruse, K. L. and Twing, J. S. (2000). The History of Statewide Achievement Testing in Texas. Applied Measurement in Education, 13(4), 327-331. doi: 10.1207/S15324818AME1304_02

Haney, W. (2000). The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(41). Retrieved from

Leung, R. (February 11, 2009). The ‘Texas Miracle’. CBS News. Retrieved from:

Hey, big spenders…

This short video from ONE Texas does a great job explaining the current crisis in Texas education funding – and how we can do better this session than we did in 2011, when Texas cut $5 BILLION from public education.

This week, the Texas House of Representatives Appropriations Committee supported a budget that would restore $2.5 billion to the education budget. Unfortunately, the Senate budget passed this Wednesday doesn’t restore funding at the same levels. 

Who’s Lobbying: Raise Your Hand Texas

In an effort to get a better sense of who’s lobbying for what, we turn our attention to an organization called Raise Your Hand Texas. Our goal? To examine their legislative agenda in the hopes of further expanding our perspective of the many voices seeking to improve and influence Texas education.

Raise Your Hand Texas, identifies itself as “a non-profit education advocacy organization working to strengthen public education in Texas. We train public school leaders to lead transformational change at the campus level, and advocate for public policies that make public schools better for all Texas students.”

Their legislative agenda challenges legislators to:

Restore Critical Funding for Texas Public Schools

  • Texas has the second highest national public school enrollment and the fifth WORST per-student spending
  • Raise Your Hand Texas supports: restoring the $5.3 billion cut from the budget last session

Improve the Accountability System
Accountability efforts should:

  • Expanding the number of measures used to make an accountability rating
  • Include student progress and other factors other than performance on state assessments
  • Provide relevant performance results that the public can easily access and understand
  • “Simplify and align standards and reporting under the state and federal accountability system”

Reduce high stakes testing

  • Texas has by far the highest number of end-of-course exams of any state
  • Raise Your Hand Texas supports: reducing the number of exams, allowing local districts more flexibility over the 15% grading requirement, and “allowing AP/IB exams and Dual Credit course completion to satisfy EOC requirement in that subject”

Oppose School Vouchers

  • Raise Your Hand Texas is opposed to school vouchers in any form, claiming that they “divert taxpayer funds to fund private schools at taxpayers expense”

Fund Pre-k + Reward High Quality Pre-K Programs

  • By restoring funding for Prekindergarten Early Start Grants and for the School Readiness Certification System quality and quantity of pre-K offerings can be increased

Increase Career and Technical Course Options for Texas Students

  • Prepare Texas students for future careers by increasing the number of Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses that satisfy math and science requirements for graduation

Support Stronger Authority to Close Failing Charter Schools

  • Raise Your Hand Texas opposes: expanding the current cap on charters until significant progress is made in improving charter school enforcement and revoking poor-performing charters

Support Stronger Accountability and Transparency for Virtual School Providers and oppose

  • Full-time virtual education is criticized for its poor academic performance and lack of transparency and yet enrolment has quadrupled in the past four years.
  • Raise Your Hand Texas opposes: “Allowing virtual school providers to deliver courses outside of the Texas Virtual School Network, or to receive direct funding for students using taxpayer funds”

Interested in following this agenda? Raise Your Hand Texas provides regular Capitol Updates to help you stay on top of these issues as they move through the house and the senate

Ok but………. who ARE these guys?

Finding information on what Raise Your Hand Texas supports was easy enough. But efforts to dig a bit deeper to determine who is behind this organization proved to be significantly more challenging.

In fact, we became increasingly more uncomfortable as we searched for information that is (as we understood it) supposed to be public record (such as the organization’s 990 funding disclosure form). When we finally did find their 2011 990 on Guidestar we were most interested to note that the full title of the foundation included the “Charles Butt Charitable Fund.” What does this mean? In short, Raise Your Hand Texas is the private foundation of Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of HEB, who is worth about $7.4 billion according to Forbes Magazine.

What’s wrong with Charles Butt giving some of his excess wealth to help improve Texas education? The short answer is nothing. What we were most bothered by in our efforts to figure out where the money was coming from and what additional motivations may be factoring into their legislative agenda was the total lack of transparency. A non-profit supported by a single funding source is worth keeping an eye on, but its difficult to do so when their website provides no direct access to such information and when the best secondary source is the Linkedin page for Raise Your Hand Texas which states vaguely that its “funded by a Texas philanthropist.” In fact the only source to openly acknowledge the connection between But and RYHT came from RYHT’s social media providers, who define the organization as being “founded and led by Charles Butt.”

Why does this matter? Because, as they say, money talks, and in such a heated debate with so many factors at play its important to know whose pushing for what and why.