Texas’ Testing Revisions Make Headlines

Even in the Big Apple, the fact that the state that started the accountability movement is considering backtracking is newsworthy.

Motoko Rich’s piece in today’s New York Times highlights the importance of the debate happening right here in our state, and discusses the same tension I mentioned in my post last week: how do we balance the desire to have high standards for all students while not overwhelming students and teachers with time-consuming and expensive tests?

Coincidentally, this article highlights Akins High School, where I’m an MSSW Intern. Akins’ Principal Girard, quoted in the article, makes a valid point that lowering standards equals a risk that not all kids will be equally encouraged or pushed to achieve. I wish I didn’t agree that we adults need rules lest we let some kids slip through the cracks – but I think America’s gaping achievement gap shows that the honor system doesn’t cut it. When we trust the system to treat all kids the same, low income and minority kids lose big.

At the same time, I agree with the parent who noted that 9 of the last 12 weeks of school are impacted by testing – that’s insanity.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, where is the middle ground?

Can’t we have high standards, ones that drive kids to the limits of their potential, AND a number of tests that is reasonable (e.g., not 15 when no other state has more than 6)?

I think the answer is a pretty straightforward, resounding YES – but sadly I don’t see the political will for that kind of a compromise in Texas. Despite a few Dems’ best efforts (Van De Putte, Strama), I just don’t see those kinds of proposals moving forward.

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Breaking news from the lege

pecan pieDon’t worry folks, Erin and I have been watching the legislature like hawks so we were able to catch the passing of this important resolution:

Texas House of Representatives formally names pecan pie the official state pie in a ceremonial resolution sponsored by first-year Rep. Marsha Farney, a Republican from Georgetown, north of Austin.

Glad we’re taking care of the important things and glad we’ve got our priorities straight when it comes to coverage. The Houston Chronicle covers three events in last Thursday’s Legislative Notebook. Guess which one got top priority?

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.

Accountability in Texas, Part 2: A STAAR is born

Time to pick up our history lesson. We left off with a critique of the so-called “Texas miracle” that occurred during the era of the TAAS test.

The next big transition to come to Texas was a move to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), which were implemented in 2003. These tests were intended to map closely to standards set by the new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) – the Texas curriculum standards* – and to be more rigorous than TAAS.

When the first round of results came out, Texas was shocked by results that further debunked the “Texas miracle”. The results revealed a deep achievement gap for minority students and pointed at potentially flawed previous scores/standards.The Lone Star Report called it a “reality check”, reporting that:

“The revelations of TEA’s presentation [to a House Committee] were nothing short of a confessional. Comparison of Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test results showed passing rates for reading of around 90 percent, and for mathematics around 80 percent for grades 3 to 8, compared to TAKS pass rates at panel-recommended scoring averaging around 70 percent for reading and declining to nearly 50 percent for mathematics.”

Conversations about an updated assessment began just a few short years later, and in 2009, STAAR was born – the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

Again, according to TEA, the goal was to increase rigor. STAAR also introduced several new concepts, most notably, the idea of end-of-course (EOC) exams. These exams are designed to measure only the content taught at a particular grade level (or in high school, in a particular subject). In addition, with STAAR, high school students must pass 12 exit exams based on required subjects in order to graduate.

With STAAR barely in the implementation stages, the backlash began. 

A high level-source of dissatisfaction heightened the issue: in early 2012, TEA Commissioner Robert Scott made a speech to the Texas Association of School Administrators that surprised many legislators and educators alike. Among Scott’s more quotable moments, he called the current testing regimen aperversion of its original intent”.

Thus began the conversation that’s happening now, wherein former accountability advocates are flip-flopping and calling for more flexibility and fewer exams. Republican Dan Patrick stated, “We can blame the Legislature…If we have fouled this up, we need to get this right.”

And that, friends, appears to be what they’re trying to do with House Bill 5.

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*Side note: Texas curricula is a controversy in and of itself – check out http://www.therevisionariesmovie.com for some stunning (and terrifying) information on how standards are set in the Lone Star State.

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?

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*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.

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?*

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*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.

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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.

What’s all the Fuss About Anyway?

In a recent article, the Texas Tribune published a troubling assessment in their ongoing series titled “Beyond the Data: A closer Look at Texas Schools.” The article reflected on the past 10-years of TAKS exams and highlighted some disturbing trends lurking below students “soaring” scores.  True, last year 90% of students aced their 11th grade exit exams, an encouraging increase from the 70% who passed in 2003. But what do these numbers actually represent?

Unfortunately, student’s success with the state standardized tests has not translated to the national level. Scores on both the SAT and ACT have dropped or plateaued and Texas students remain behind the national average on both the SAT’s and the NEAP (except in 4th and 8th grade math).  This calls into question what exactly the state standardized tests are measuring, or more importantly what skills the passing 90% are gaining. (Let us assume for the time being that standardized tests are an accurate measure of achievement and that using one standardized test to measure another is an effective means of assessing knowledge gained).

How do we explain these discrepancies? The Tribune article points out an important distinction between TAKS exams, which “gauge mastery of Texas curriculum standards” and national assessments like the SATs and the ACTs which “focus on higher order thinking skills like problem solving and reading comprehension”. But what good is mastering Texas curriculum if students are not learning to problem solve and think for themselves? What good will memorization be at the college level, or more importantly, in the real world? “We are still teaching too much stuff as opposed to teaching kids how to think and process,” says Timothy Jones, an education professor at Sam Houston State University. Jones goes on to state that until students “learn how to understand and find information on their own rather than memorizing straight facts” these discrepancies in state and national level tests will persist.

As a response, Texas is now moving to the STAAR exams (given to 3-9th grade students), which are designed to combine the teaching of “higher order skills” while still adhering to the Texas curriculum. But as our earlier post reveals, Texas state tests have been claiming to measure problem solving and critical thinking skills since the introduction of the TAAS exams in the 1990s. How then are we to believe that the STAAR exams will be any different?

One thing that continues to be disturbingly absent from this discussion is a closer look at testing in general. Is high-stakes testing an effective measure of achievement? And more importantly, are standardized tests a good measure of long-term success in college and beyond?

Stay tuned as we take a closer look at testing as we know it…..