Voices From the Battle Lines

As we wrap up the semester and thus our careful coverage of public education in Texas and what the legislators have in store for it, it’s hard not to notice the continued absence of several important voices.

Where’s the feedback, the testimonies, the opinions and the first hand experiences of those most directly impacted by this issue? That’s right, I’m talking about students, teachers and parents. I know there have been committees and town hall meetings, but when it comes down to it, hardly any of the coverage has focused on them and from what we could tell, teachers voices were also largely absent from the committee hearing and house floor vote that we attended. What’s wrong with this picture?

In a paltry effort to tip the scales in the right direction, we close our coverage with a few choice words from Melissa McCann Cooper, a language arts teacher at Murchison Middle School in Austin. Her full piece can be found and SHOULD be read here.

Speaking of her recent experience administering the STAAR writing exam to this years  7th graders, Ms. McCann Cooper reminds us that even with the frenzy currently taking place at the Capitol, we still have a long way to go:

If the goal was to create a more rigorous assessment, STAAR has failed. STAAR’s predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), required students to write a two-page, well-elaborated essay. Those who followed a basic formula (introduction, explain your topic in detail, conclusion) scored reasonably well. TAKS didn’t produce the Great American Novel, but it expected students to generate and organize coherent, connected examples on a particular topic. They were also encouraged to write with style, including complex sentence structure and engaging vocabulary in their essays. Throughout the year, I taught my students to be effective writers, and on test day they simply had to apply those skills to whatever topic was given to them.

The STAAR writing test, in contrast, limits writers to 26 lines, effectively encouraging only superficial, shallow statements with no room for reasoned argument. It’s the antithesis of good writing, a dumbed-down version of a mediocre assessment. My students can only score well if I teach them to go against everything they know and everything I want them to be as writers. STAAR may appear more rigorous because students sit for four hours at a time for two consecutive days to complete it. But intellectually and academically, STAAR is far less rigorous than its discarded older cousin.”

Further on Ms. McCann Cooper offers us a real look at what has been lost since the onset of high stakes testing:

“What else has been stolen? Novel studies, independent thinking, analytical discussions, and creative writing. Where my 2001 students would have read 10 novels by now, my current students have read one. Where my 2002 students would have written and peer-edited more than 15 creative writing pieces, my current students have completed zero. Instead of analyzing literature, students get sorted into testing rooms to take practice tests. School officials seem to think that testing kids — who have already lost significant instructional time to STAAR practice — will improve their performance. But as we say in Texas, weighing the pig does not make it fatter.”

Ms. McCann Cooper’s honest and well articulated piece offers us a small but troubling look at what’s really at stake. It’s about more than just numbers, it’s about what those numbers represent and about what’s happening, and what’s being lost, in the classroom and in the minds of students.

After all isn’t this what we’re really talking about? Shouldn’t that be the point of testing? To make sure students are being challenged to both learn and grow? To not only internalize facts but learn, through experience, how to learn and most importantly how to think for themselves?

Maybe its time we started asking, what’s the actual point of education? Does the root of the problem lie in the vastly different answers to this question?


News Roundup

While we not-so-patiently wait for HB 5 to hit the Senate floor – slated to happen soon, as it was placed on the calendars this afternoon – let’s catch up on the commentary.

Morgan Smith’s Sunday piece in the Texas Tribune narrowed in on a specific part of the conversation happening at the Capitol – the sometimes hostile criticism of Pearson, the testing company with a nearly half BILLION dollar contract to manage Texas public school testing through 2015. Smith quoted former Rep. Scott Hochberg, who encouraged legislators to look within for who’s to blame. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, interestingly, stepped right up and wrote the first comment on the article:

Yes, we all voted for the conference report that created this situation.
Yes, we were poorly informed on the vote.
The only thing more troubling than making a bad decision is refusing to correct it once you know it was bad. Last session the house tried repeatedly to correct the problem (HB500). The Senate blocked the correction. This session both Senator Patrick and I are again working hard to correct the disaster that awaits the present 10th graders and the classes behind them. Our problem is that some folks still deny there is a problem. Our “one size fits all” approach combined with the crazy testing must face a realistic correction. 
Jimmie Don Aycock
Chair, House Public Ed.

Whether you agree with him or not, I must say, it’s pretty dang refreshing to hear a lawmaker admit they made a mistake.

The Texas Monthly trumped my history posts with a thoroughly researched and excellent investigative piece on how we’ve come so far in the last 10 years – from the state out front, charging forward on accountability, to now making the biggest and most publicized retreat. It’s long, but a worthy read. Check it out.

Finally, a little more news from today in education. At the hearing we observed, Sen. Patrick noted that he was pulling the provision for grading schools on an A-F rating scalelike Florida does, so schools are more easily recognized for their level of achievement and to encourage them to do better by all of their students, not just a select few. Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced today that TEA is moving forward without legislative action to implement an A-F system. Potentially an interesting development, though the ratings are still as of now based just on STAAR test scores. More on this development here.

Signing off for now – hopefully to return with an update on HB 5 in the next few days…

Sharpen your pencils…

…it’s STAAR time. The warm-ups are over, no more practice: kids in Texas will be in STAAR testing most of this week (again). A friend and teacher at a local middle school posted a status update today that sums it up nicely:

We’re going to stick you in a room for four hours and have you tell us everything you know. No food until you’re done and only supervised bathroom breaks. No, I’m not talking about suspected criminals. It’s STAAR day everybody!

Who’s lobbying: TAMSA

Today we take a closer look at one of the loudest voices heard in this session’s battle over standardized testing in Texas – a group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA).

TAMSA has been a big presence this session, sending representatives to hearings and using social media and online advocacy to fight for HB 5 and it’s companion bills in the Senate.

TAMSA describes itself as “a statewide, grassroots organization comprised of parents and other community members concerned with the overemphasis on high stakes STAAR tests and the misallocation of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to the tests that should be going to the classroom. TAMSA’s vision is for a strong accountability system for our schools and student assessments that are meaningful. We support the use of nationally normed tests, supplemented with state tests where appropriate.”

We’ve been following TAMSA all session. Their Facebook feed has been a great source for the latest updates on what’s happening and a great place to mine for news articles. But who IS TAMSA?

First, a note on funding – the organization appears to be run by volunteers. I wasn’t able to easily unearth data on who is funding their efforts.

Looking  at their leadership, it’s clear that this a group of powerful women. While I don’t doubt the passion of these women, I am concerned by the lack of diversity among their ranks.

President and co-founder Dineen Majcher is an Austin lawyer and parent. She has described TAMSA members as being “of all political stripes” and from all over Texas. She’s not shy with her opinions and has had editorials published and been quoted here and here.

VP Susan Kellner is a parent, former businesswoman, and former School Board member from Spring Branch ISD outside of Houston. She and her husband Larry Kellner, former CEO of Continental Airlines, are longtime advocates and financial supporters of education-related causes in Texas. She also serves on the boards of Children at Risk and the Texas Education Reform Foundation.

Based on LinkedIn profiles and a little internet digging, it appears that Majcher, Kellner, and the other board members of TAMSA are all wealthy, well-connected, and white. Considering the impact these bills have on all Texas kids, I would like to see more people of color and socio-economic diversity represented.

This is not to discount TAMSA’s efforts or sincerity. But we live in a majority-minority state, and many of the organizations opposing HB 5 and it’s companion bills are well-respected organizations that fight for equity for minority students in public schools (LULAC, the Education Trust). These organizations are justifiably concerned that these changes will reinforce the achievement gap and lower standards for kids of color (more on that here).

So while I’m with TAMSA on reducing tests to something meaningful and reasonable, it’s clear that it’s not always that simple. There could be unintended consequences for some kids if standards shift. Nothing is simple, and I think we leave out a discussion of equity to our own peril. 

Creativity survives despite best efforts to standardize thinking

Fed up with testing, an 8th grader in upstate New York recently created her own standardized test in an effort to mock the entire process. Her reading passage is included below. Read the original article in the Washington Post to take the full exam.

Dear New  York State,

I am not fond of your tests. They do not show you who I am, or who my teachers are. For example, if a student is a bad test taker, you would look at her test and think she is a bad student. What happens if a kid is just having a bad day? You would only see that one test and and think he was an unsatisfactory pupil. Imagine how stressed the teachers are having to rely on their students’ test scores as a form of evaluation.

Not all students are the same,  therefore standardized tests are impractical. Albert Einstein once said, “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” These tests can lower self-esteem and cause a lot of anxiety. The tests are so long that, by the last day of testing, some kids end up guessing, just so they can be done. How can you put eight-year-old kids through six days of testing over a two-week time frame?.

Children with special needs have even greater trouble with these exams. The tests are a total waste for them….

Sophia says it best later in the passage when she warns “just think of how boring the world would be if everybody was the same.” 

HB 5 on the move in the Senate

After passing the House in late March, House Bill 5 has continued to move through the legislative process. As we reported, on Tuesday the bill was voted out of the Senate Education Committee and moved to the House floor for debate. Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune reported on the developments, appropriately calling House Bill 5 “one of the most controversial education bills” of the session. Check out the Texas Trib’s full coverage here and here.

Today I got wind that Senator Dan Patrick posted an interesting (and ahem, a bit heated) comment on his Facebook page, detailing all of the “misinformation” being spread about HB 5. His tone echoes the passion with which he spoke at the Committee hearing, highlighting the recurring issues of rigor and the tension between standards and reasonable levels of accountability. His closing quote:

“We are not reducing rigor in our graduation pathways and we are not reducing accountability by reducing the number of STAAR tests. We are correcting the error of creating 15 STAAR tests several years ago and we are creating more flexibility for students in high school so they can graduate ready for college and career.”

You can check out his full post for yourself here.

Also, this article hints that Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst may be working against their own party members on this bill. It’s an interesting fight down in Austin, folks….

Close up of the HB5 action in the Senate

After a grueling experience attempting to watch the floor take action on House Bill 5, Jessica and I decided to observe a the Senate Education Committee in hopes of a more focused, meaty discussion. To some degree, we got our wish.

Though procedurally it was at times hard to tell what was going on, a few things were clear. Senator Dan Patrick is passionate on this topic, as is Senator Leticia Van De Putte, and the debate is nothing if not heated.

The hearing began with a fiery introduction from Senator Dan Patrick.

He spoke candidly about his feelings about the bill, vigorously defends rigor of high school standards as laid out in HB 5 and the similar bills in the Senate, SB 1724 and SB 3. He openly bashed the testing companies – not naming Pearson directly, but hinting at his distaste for them and their focus on creating as many exams as possible and scoring them as cheaply as possible.* Senator Patrick also ripped into the buzz around the issue in the national press, at one point saying, “Since when does Texas listen to what the New York Times has to say?”

After his introduction, Senator Van De Putte spoke on her feelings on the need for continued rigor in order to prevent “some children” (in my opinion a clear hint at minority students) from not getting what they need to attend four-year colleges.

Senator Patrick then introduced several changes to the bill under the committee substitute in rapid-fire. While I can’t say I caught or understood them all, its clear that what was happening was that the favored parts of SB3 and SB 1724 were being combined with the favored parts of HB5. Two interesting tidbits – the inclusion of a provision limiting the inclusion of testing company representatives on advisory committees and the limiting of their funding for Board of Education members and a provision that the state should pay for SAT or ACT testing (up to districts to determine which one) for all children.

Senator Van De Putte then advocated for her amendment calling for a single diploma with a requirement for four years of math, science, and English and three years of social studies – but with flexibility, so students who may be on a more vocational track can, for example, take a robotics class or study HVAC engineering, and still meet the requirements to get a full diploma. She indicated that she still supports some type of “opt-over” option for students who want to take what we now call the “minimum plan” – but would ask for a parent meeting akin to an ARD in order to authorize that choice.

Several other amendments were introduced, including one that addressed a technical error and one that emphasized that testing should be executed with the minimum burden on districts in terms of security.

After that testimony began, starting with Bill Hammond from the Texas Association of Business. Hammond stated his opposition to the original bill but indicated his support (tentatively) for the proposed amendments to limit assessment while keeping rigor.

Though we weren’t able to stay to observe all of the testimony or the vote (which wound up sending SB 5 out of Committee without Senator Van De Putte’s support) it’s surprising to note that when you take out the specifics and look at the intent, there is actually a lot of similarity in the final outcome people want – a more reasonable testing schedule with better high school options for kids. The debates are arising over how to get there, and how to ensure that ALL kids are getting a shot at a high school education that’ll prepare them for the world.

We’re still waiting to see how HB 5 makes it through a Senate floor debate. That should be happening any day now, and we’ll be back with a report.

FYI: Check out the Austin American Statesman‘s review of the Committee hearing and vote here.

* Perhaps this is one of the reasons the testing companies are wearing out their welcome?