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?

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