Rising Discontent With Over-Reliance on Standardized Testing

Today’s hearing of the Texas House Public Education Committee showcased a rising tide of discontent in Texas with standardized testing. The message came from parents, teachers, principals, superintendents—all agreed something is badly awry. And their critique of standardized testing was not confined to the narrow issue of end-of-course tests as a factor in students’ grades.

On that particular issue, by the way, the Texas Education Agency’s top lawyer under questioning from the committee said today that school districts have wide latitude to decide for themselves how a student’s standardized end-of-course score will count toward the student’s grade-point average. Apparently, though a school district must count each end-of-course exam as 15 percent of a student’s grade in the course, it doesn’t have to count that score toward the GPA. Go figure!

Still, witnesses expressed indignation that students will have to pass their STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) exams this year, yet schools and school districts are not going to be rated on the basis of those same newfangled exams. Committee members expressed considerable discomfort over that scenario but opined that they can’t fix it now, because the legislature is not in session.

The testimony of Texas AFT’s Ted Melina Raab broadened the scope of discussion far beyond the technicalities of end-of-course exams, following up on a spate of e-mail letters to state representatives and senators from Texas AFT members in recent days.  Texas students deserve better, he said, “than a fifth generation of standardized testing that drives schools to divert huge amounts of classroom time and resources, at huge expense, into narrowly focused preparation for simplistic standardized tests.” If standardized testing were really the “magic bullet” its proponents claim it to be, Melina Raab said, then by now, after two decades or more of such testing, achievement levels would have soared to new heights.

In fact, he said, “there are better ways to measure the accomplishments of our students, teachers, and schools, and better ways to drive school improvement that will deliver the well-rounded education our students need.” As he elaborated in additional written testimony submitted to the committee, reform should start by putting the focus back on students and what they need, not on tests. A true reform of standardized testing means:

· Multiple measures of student achievement should be used to gauge growth and shape instruction. These must include assessments of social and emotional learning, which is essential to success in life beyond high school.

· Supportive interventions should take the place of punitive sanctions like school closure, which do not help students but do hurt communities and induce principals and teachers to focus more narrowly and obsessively than ever on test scores.

· The legislature should halt the misuse of test scores as the basis for scientifically unsound “value added” measures of student, teacher, and school performance.

· The legislature should hold itself accountable for providing the resources schools require and for bolstering neighborhood schools with a web of community support services to meet the needs of students and their families. Legislative accountability should start with restoration of the $5.4 billion cut from per-pupil funding and vital programs such as pre-kindergarten grants and the Student Success Initiative affording extra help to at-risk students.

· Interventions to improve schools should be based on what we know works: developing school leaders who can nurture leadership in others; building parent-community ties; continuously enhancing the professional capacities of faculty and staff; fostering a student-focused culture of support for striving and successful engagement in learning; a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum and the instructional tools needed to deliver instruction—including tests, in their proper place, as diagnostic tools.

Melina Raab cited specific pieces of legislation lawmakers could introduce or expand upon to build this new, alternative version of accountability. His testimony closed with this summation:

“Let this be clear: We are urging an accountability system that is more rigorous, not less so—one that does a much more thorough job of taking into account all the relevant factors that should be weighed before we declare that our schools and students have succeeded. This is of course more complicated and harder than reducing school or student achievement to a single metric of scores on standardized tests. But we have been making it much too easy on ourselves to declare our efforts a success. It is time we get on with designing the next generation of broader, more meaningful accountability. We should aim higher than STAAR.”