State Board of Education Notes—Testing, Testing

The State Board of Education meetings in Austin last week featured a noteworthy discussion relating to the new testing regime for state accountability, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).  Board member Thomas Ratliff, Republican of Mount Pleasant, aired a proposal to restore some local control over the weight given in grading to state-mandated end-of-course exams, which are due to be administered this school year for the first time.

It’s hard to get around the legislative decree that each end-of-course exam count as 15 percent of a student’s final grade for the high-school course (e.g., English III) covered by the exam. But school districts belatedly have figured out that this requirement, enacted in 2007, is a fairly large and consequential departure from the tradition of local control over grading policies. It has important implications, for instance, for the calculation of grade point averages that determine students’ eligibility for automatic admission to top state universities.

By law, passing end-of-course exams for specific courses in high school is a graduation prerequisite.  Whether a student receives any credit at all for a course needed to graduate also could hinge on the effect of that 15-percent weight to be given the end-of-course exam.

It was this latter issue, the impact of the end-of-course exam on course credit, that Board member Ratliff tried to tackle with his proposal last week.  There’s a Texas Education Agency rule that says credit for a course needed to graduate depends upon achieving a grade equivalent to 70 on a scale of 100. Ratliff proposed to amend that rule to say:  “Provided, however, that a student may be awarded credit for a course required for high school graduation based on a grade less than 70 on a scale of 100 if the student would have had a grade of 70 or above without consideration of a state end-of-course test required in that subject.”

This Ratliff proviso was up for committee discussion only, not for a vote, at last week’s Board meetings.  Board member Terri Leo, a Republican from the Houston suburbs, contended that Ratliff’s idea would “lower the bar” for Texas students.

But Ratliff noted that passing the end-of-course exams would still be a graduation requirement under his proviso. His concern was that also giving the exam result substantial weight in determining course credit, GPA, and class rank simply puts too much additional emphasis on one standardized state test, especially in the context of a system that already puts excessive emphasis on standardized testing.

Here’s how Ratliff described what he’s hearing about the high-stakes state testing system, and end-of-course exams in particular, from the folks back home:

“Constituents (parents, educators, school board members and superintendents) across my district have contacted me expressing significant concern over the statutory requirement that the grade on End of Course tests account for at least 15% of the student’s final grade in the class. There is a fair amount of outrage that the state is now not only testing our students at the state level, but now they are impacting local grading policies.

“The primary reasons for the concern are:

1)    Nobody has seen the new tests, other than small samples, and cannot verify their
fairness or accuracy in measuring a student’s understanding of the material,

2)    The delay in getting final grades in classes could impact graduation dates,
summer school, and schedules for the next school year,

3)    The lack of new instructional materials for new EOC courses that have new
TEKS could open us up to litigation at the state and/or local level, and

4)    Local grading policy should be just that…..local.”

Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott offered Board members some additional perspective, noting just two major instances where the state previously sought to preempt local discretion over grading. One was the 2009 law (strongly supported by Texas AFT) that barred school administrators from forcing teachers to give an unearned minimum grade not based on the student’s academic work. The other was a short-lived directive from the legislature to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to come up with a uniform method of computing GPAs for purposes of the “Top Ten Percent” rule (affording automatic college admission to high-ranking graduates of Texas high schools).  The grass-roots outcry in opposition to the Coordinating Board’s 2008 proposal (opposition shared by Texas AFT) prompted the legislature to rescind the directive to come up with a standard GPA calculation.