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: http://www.texasobserver.org/1004-test-case-hard-lessons-from-the-taas
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 http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/432/828
Leung, R. (February 11, 2009). The ‘Texas Miracle’. CBS News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500164_162-591676.html