It has been fascinating to watch the standardized testing backlash that seems to have gained momentum in Texas and across the nation this past year. On Feb. 23, more than 10,000 Texas parents and educators traveled to Austin to express their desire to see more dollars spent on instruction and less on testing. In late January the Texas House passed a preliminary 2014-2015 budget that allocated zero dollars for state testing. Although this preliminary budget is unlikely to stand, House Speaker Joe Strauss noted its symbolism in letting voters know that their voices have been heard.
Texas has a long history of state assessment and began its program of standardized testing in 1980 with the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS), assessing students in reading, writing, and mathematics in grades 3,5, and 9 and continuing with the TEAMS test (1984-1989), the TAAS test (1990-2002), the TAKS test (2003-2011) and now the STAAR assessment. Beginning with the TAAS test, the tests were designed to measure student progress toward the state curriculum standards, known originally as the Essential Elements and later as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS.
Most educators and parents would agree that testing, in and of itself, is not a bad thing at all and in fact is a necessary component of any system of curriculum and instruction. Assessment allows educators to understand what students know, allowing them to direct instruction towards the goal of mastering the taught curriculum. These noble goals, however, have been eclipsed in favor of using testing primarily as a way to rate teachers, principals, and schools and provide a quick means of determining whether a school is “good” or “bad.”
High-stakes testing and the accountability systems created to rate schools on test performance assume that all things (curriculum, teachers, facilities, funding, and students) are the same and that comparisons between schools are apples to apples. Of course this is hardly ever the case, yet even some districts and charters themselves have gotten caught up in the hype of ratings and these unequal comparisons.
A case in point is the state’s attempt to level the playing field in 2010 by introducing the Texas Performance Measure (TPM), a construct that allowed the measurement of a student’s growth in a subject area from year to year by comparing previous and current year results and the predicting future performance based on these results. Because the state allowed a high enough predictive score to be considered a passing score even though the student may have actually failed the test, districts and charters were rated with labels such as “Exemplary” or “Exemplary with TPM.” Things had clearly gotten out of hand.
The state has proposed a new accountability system, with a focus on college readiness and other areas of performance beyond simply test scores. But the underlying question remains — will the success and value of a school ultimately be determined by the results on a multiple choice exam? Or will schools be rated on those skills cited in countless studies as the true determiners of success in our 21st century world, such as how effectively students are taught to think critically and work cooperatively to solve problems? I would encourage you to take the time and let your representative know how you feel about this important issue.
Bruce Marchand is the director of Pineywoods Community Academy in Lufkin. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.