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 week – tests 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.