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. 
Respectfully,
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…

Advertisements

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. 

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….

Whatever is Standardized Achievement?

As we continue our efforts to decipher legislative changes impacting Texas education it seems equally important to take a step back to examine testing from a broader perspective.  One could easily get lost in the sea of standardized acronyms: TASS, STAAR, SAT..…But shouldn’t we be asking if high stakes testing is doing us any good?

No Child Left Behind ushered standardized achievement testing firmly into the classrooms of every state. Yet few studies have made efforts to evaluate the impact this model is having on education as a whole – and more importantly, on students. Even if you’re more interested in measuring achievement than critical thinking, doesn’t it still make sense to make sure the chosen method is producing the desired results?

Unfortunately, past efforts to assess the efficacy of high-stakes testing yielded conflicting outcomes, leading researchers to conclude that “there was no compelling evidence that the implementation of high-stakes testing improved student achievement” (Amrein & Berliner 2002a, 2002b).

Existing studies are further invalidated by the fact that few account for key demographic factors known to impact achievement (Marchant, Paulson & Shunk, 2001). When family income, parent education, ethnicity and the exclusion of students with disabilities or limited English proficiency are controlled, the correlation between high-stakes testing and improved achievement scores all but disappears.

In fact, high-stakes achievement testing was only related to significant improvements in achievement when demographic differences were not taken into account (Marchant, Paulson & Shunk, 2001).  Put more bluntly, researchers who included demographic information in their study concluded “these results do not vindicate a general education reform effort focused almost exclusively on testing nor does it provide adequate support to any argument that high stakes testing is necessary to raise student achievement” (Marchant, Paulson & Shunk, 2001).

It seems that the verdict is still out on the accuracy and utility of using high-stakes testing to measure student achievement…yet these tests are increasingly used to determine whether or not students advance from grade to grade or even graduate.

Even the actual manuals created by testing companies for school administrators stress the importance of looking at classroom performance and teacher evaluation over “a test score from an achievement battery” to evaluate significant decisions such as grade retention.

If even the people making the tests warn against using tests as the main component to evaluate student performance, why do we place increasing emphasis on high-stakes testing to measure of accountability?

Isn’t it time to ask what these standardized tests are actually measuring?!

We have already discussed how Texas’ TAKS exams fail to measure higher order thinking skills like problems solving. What about long term success in college and beyond?

Research shows that 80% of college success is measured by factors other than the SAT and that “there is little to no correlation between test scores and earnings” (Bracey, 2001). Robert Sternberg of Yale University drives this point home stating “tests measure only a portion of the knowledge and analytical skills that might be needed on the job while they measure nothing at all about creativity or common sense” (Bracey, 2001).

What legacy are we leaving today’s students if they are being taught how to memorize information and rewarded for achieving on tests that in no way measure their ability to succeed in higher education or in the real world?

I understand that some form of measurement is unavoidable and even necessary. But attempting to assess achievement through high-stakes standardized testing simply leaves too much out of the equation.

What’s more, we must consider how the growing emphasis on high-stakes achievement tests is impacting the very fabric of education. What kind of society are we investing in if all we know how to do is memorize and regurgitate predetermined curriculum?

References

Amrein, A.L., & Berliner, D.C. (2002a). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(18). Retrieved July 18, 2003, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/.

Amrein, A.L., & Berliner, D.C. (2002b). The impact of high-stakes tests on student academic performance:     An analysis of NAEP results in states with high-stakes tests and ACT, SAT, and AP Test results in states with high school graduation exams. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University. Retrieved July 18, 2003, from http://www.asu.edu/educ/epsl/EPRU/documents/EPSL-0211-126-EPRU.pdf.

Bracey, G. W. (2001). TEST SCORES IN THE LONG RUN. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(8), 637.

Marchant, G. J., Paulson, S. E., & Shunk, A. (2006). Relationships between high-stakes testing policies and student achievement after controlling for demographic factors in aggregated data. education policy analysis archives, 14, 30.

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.

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. 

___________________________________

Sources:

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

Ahoy and welcome!

We’re two daughters of educators and budding social workers, looking closely at Texas schools and wondering…what?!

We are proud products of public education. Looking back on our own time in public schools (which we know, is a while back…), we have fond memories of art, band, and other electives. Our schools weren’t perfect, but they helped us get where we are today. We had teachers who pushed us to think and helped us get into college. And our memories of testing are faint, just a blip on our childhood radars.

One thing is clear: that won’t be true for the generations of students in classrooms today. A distinct shift has happened, starting with No Child Left Behind. The impact of the accountability movement on Texas in particular is staggering.

A quick look at some hard facts:

Interning at public schools in Texas and talking with friends who teach here has painted a disturbing picture: schools rearranging schedules to squeeze in extra test prep; administrators working 12 hour days during testing, scrambling to ensure compliance; entire weeks of instruction spent on standardized tests.

This blog is our effort to untangle how we got here, what’s really happening, and what’s being done to right the ship. We’re also keeping an eye on the school funding battle currently happening as part of the budget debate in the Legislature.