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!

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?

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?


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

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

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.

Shhhh…..testing in progress.

Today, a break from the lege to talk about what testing feels like on the ground. Legislative battles over 5 or 15 tests and standards aside, students in Texas sharpened their pencils, sat down, and took STAAR tests this week.*

We can talk until we’re blue in the face about what to measure and how often, but no matter all that – the way it plays out on the ground is often a different story.

At the high school where I’m an intern, I can report that testing means an odd mix of chaos and calm. Walking the halls during testing hours, you could see proctors outside of rooms and signs on classroom doors: “DO NOT DISTURB – TESTING IN PROGRESS.”

When the bell rang for lunch or the afternoon periods after testing, chaos reigned. Kids flooded the hallways with pent up energy, and a food fight even erupted in the lunchroom. No big surprise for a few thousand kids made to sit tight for hours at a time, filling out bubble sheets and writing five-paragraph essays.

Students who weren’t taking tests were assigned to “TAKS Camp” – supposedly intensive test prep for the next round of TAKS tests. Every student I asked about that “bootcamp” was nonplussed. “Boring.” “Pointless.” “We didn’t really do anything.”

And the seniors, who didn’t have a test to take or prepare for at the moment? They sat in the gym from 9:15 in the morning until about 2pm, when classes usually resumed. Or they skipped.

I’m sure there were other kids who took it seriously. Maybe some even too seriously. But I didn’t see those kids. This is just my experience, a limited one, at just one school.

But it begs the question: for all the effort our state puts into these tests, for all the money we spend and energy we dedicate to determining their importance, what are the kids getting?

One Texas student took it upon himself to make a statement. A Junior, Kyron Birdine will graduate based on TAKS, but was forced to take the STAAR test as well, as part of a test group. His response?

“I have the TAKS test to study for, not this unneeded craziness. YOLO [You Only Live Once]”. He then tweeted a photo of his creative response. He’s been suspended and the story has gotten international attention. In case you were worried he would go forgotten, don’t be: a#freeKyron hashtag is building steam.

Silly though his action may have been, the kid has a point.

YOLO, legislators. Are we going to fix this testing mess or what?


*STAAR is the new version of testing in Texas, being phased in over the old TAKS test. More to come on that this weekend with the second round of my version of a Texas accountability history lesson.