More From State Accountability Hearing

At last week’s joint hearing of Texas House and Senate education committees, lawmakers kept coming back by one route or another to some key questions: How can the state get the benefit of information provided by standardized testing without continuing the excessive emphasis on testing at the expense of time and energy for real instruction? How can the state make the standardized test a fairer measure of student achievement?

For instance, Rep. Scott Hochberg, Democrat of Houston, asked about the timing of the test, at least several weeks (for end-of-course exams in high school) if not a full month (for exams in lower grades) before the end of the school year. At issue is whether the state is really measuring the effect of a full year’s instruction if we don’t wait to test until the end of the year. Hochberg suggested the early testing is primarily for the convenience of the testing authorities–so that they have time to figure out after the fact where to set the passing level on the exam. Yet it is feasible to set passing levels beforehand, Hochberg noted.

He also wondered why it’s necessary to give the standardized tests every year from third grade through middle school. Digging through the data, Hochberg said, he had found that something like 96 or 97 percent of students who pass in, say, third grade, will also pass in fourth. So just what additional benefit are we getting from the additional testing of all students in fourth grade? Should the test in the latter year perhaps be given only to those who were at or near the minimum passing score the prior year?

The answer from the Texas Education Agency staff was that the data still are useful for purposes of determining whether students should be promoted, and (perhaps more importantly) the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act requires annual testing in reading and math in grades three through eight.

Rep. Diane Patrick, Republican of Arlington, noted that the original purpose of the state testing system had been more diagnostic. However, as Hochberg pointed out in rueful response, the purpose now is to provide school ratings.

To that end, in fact, TEA officials served notice that the tests under the new system of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) each will be longer, by four or five test items, with the goal of providing more information on “gradations of achievement.” Yet, as reported in our previous Hotline coverage of this hearing, the TEA staff conceded under questioning that the test data still would not be suitable to measure students’ academic growth beyond their current grade level. For that purpose, agency officials said, you would have to look at a lot more information than just the results of standardized state achievement tests.