A Test for Legislators: Questions About Test-Driven School Accountability

In the 2007 and 2009 legislative sessions, Texas lawmakers enacted significant future changes in the state’s test-focused accountability system. The changes include use of end-of-course exams instead of an exit-level exam as a high-school graduation requirement, along with tougher tests at all levels that are supposedly calibrated to show progress toward “college readiness.” The latter is defined as readiness for college work without any need to take remedial courses.

Soon many of those changes will take effect, and for four hours today legislators at a joint hearing of Texas House and Senate education committees heard from the Texas Education Agency about the steps being taken to implement the legislature’s wishes. It was evident that many lawmakers are not at all sure the “new, improved” accountability system will be what they intended.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, Democrat of Houston, said the legislature had expected the new system would better measure students’ academic “growth.” He suggested that schools should see an “accountability benefit” for taking students beyond their current grade level. But TEA officials’ answers to his questions indicated that the new tests now in the works would not provide a measure of student improvement suitable for these purposes. Their response did not sit well with Sen. Florence Shapiro, the Republican from Plano who as chair of the Senate Education Committee has considerable pride of authorship regarding the 2007 and 2009 legislation. “I’m not happy about it,” said Shapiro.

TEA witnesses noted that by December 1 the agency will present the legislature with a written plan for the transition to the new STAAR (State of  Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) testing regime, on which school ratings will be based starting in 2013. They promised that this transition plan will explore options for how to measure student improvement in light of today’s questions.

However, TEA accountability expert Criss Cloudt made one particularly revealing comment in response to Hochberg’s persistent questioning. To measure student growth properly, she said, “I would want more information than just test results.” She cited teachers’ grades, teachers’ observations, and other indicators of readiness beyond state achievement tests.

As Texas AFT noted in testimony today, the new STAAR system like the current TAKS system still puts far too much reliance on the state achievement test as the measure of performance for students, teachers, and schools. The tension left unresolved by the legislature in 2007 and 2009 is between its desire for a simple, easy-to-administer ratings system based on a single state test and the simultaneous desire for a system subtle enough to show a more meaningful picture of what’s really being accomplished in our schools.  An upcoming hotline will report further evidence from today’s hearing that a lot of work is still needed to put state accountability testing in its proper place and resolve that tension.