High-Stakes Testing Doesn't Make The Grade

As a parent, is the STAAR test on your radar screen yet?  With the holidays ahead, for most parents, that answer is probably a no, unless you have a high school student taking end of course exams this month.

Heck, maybe these tests are never on your radar screen. After all, if your child has always passed the TAKS test, you probably didn’t think too much about it until you got the note to make sure your child gets a good night’s sleep and eats a good breakfast. Or maybe you were annoyed that some of the things that you recall learning as a child or the school environment that you remember is disappearing in favor of test-driven curriculum. It’s unfortunate but not something over which you really have any control.

Or do you?  The 83rd Texas Legislative Session begins in January, and there has never been a more important time to learn about the education issues that affect our kids and make your voice heard. Education issues are arguably the most urgent priorities that have to be addressed this session, and those decisions are going to have a direct impact on your kids. The STAAR test and its implications will be at the very center of this discussion. 

At this point, recognizing how these tests have narrowed curriculum, hindered creativity in learning, have not produced any gains in student achievement and are harming our most vulnerable students, the boards of over 800 school districts in Texas have passed a resolution against high-stakes standardized testing.  Texas PTA has jumped on board with this movement as well, encouraging local chapters to adopt the same resolution.   Testing concerns among parents has led to the development of grass roots organizations seeking change, including Texans Opt Out of Standardized Tests and Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA).

So how did we get to this point and why did it take so long for parents to start to take notice?  To answer that, you have to take a look back at the history of standardized testing in Texas and how it morphed into the testing monster that we see today.

Testing of our students in Texas public schools had its beginnings in 1979 with the TABS test, a test of “basic skills”. Concerns at the time were that students were being allowed to graduate without that set of “basic skills” needed after high school.  Soon concern shifted that students should be required to have more than just basic skills, and along came the TEAMS test. Finally the 90’s brought us the TAAS test, with more rigor, and was the first test that required that a student pass in order to graduate. 

Finally, the test most of us are most are most familiar with, the TAKS test, came about in 2001 and was designed to be even more rigorous and to match the state curriculum outlined in those TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) we all hear about. This was also the test intended to end social promotion by requiring students in grades 3, 5, and 8 to pass in order to move on to the next grade.

Before I move on to STAAR, why is it that the typical parent in our neighborhood area is only tangentially aware of the issues involved with all of this testing? There are a number of reasons.  Probably the most obvious reason is that most kids in the surrounding school districts and ours pass the test.  Few parents have to worry about their child being retained or being denied a diploma in our area, and those who do have these struggles typically don’t want to reveal that they have a child that didn’t pass. 

I have a child with a learning disability and who receives special education services who has always struggled with these tests.  I can certainly attest that there are a significant number of families battling this issue, even in our area.  But our struggles are not as well known as they might be in other areas of Texas, where there is a high percentage of low-income, minority, or immigrant students.  These are the students who have been hardest hit by high-stakes standardized testing. 

Each year approximately 20,000 Texas high school seniors are denied a diploma because they couldn’t pass a portion of the TAKS test, despite having passed all of their coursework. Last year that number was 22,578, or one in every 12 high school seniors. These students have limited options for success in post secondary endeavors. They aren’t welcome at junior college and employers certainly aren’t eager to hire without a high school diploma. Clearly having so many young people without a diploma is a state tragedy, yet I saw only one report locally with these numbers. However, since most of those students don’t live close to us, our awareness of the situation is limited.

Another reason parents aren’t aware of the pervasiveness of testing effects is that we don’t get a front-seat view of what goes on to prepare our kids to take the tests. Much of that preparation has simply become business as usual in our school environment, and we don’t even notice it. No one questions the need for benchmark testing or how much instructional time is lost to it. Those of you with elementary-age kids might look through some of your kids’ work and see how many worksheets you can find that have a little label at the top or bottom with the TEKS number that is being practiced on that worksheet. It is a testament to the talent and hard work of our kids teachers that they go the extra mile to make sure that our kids get more than is mandated by that test-driven curriculum, and to go beyond worksheets and short reading passages.

It’s also important to know that most of those test prep type materials are enthusiastically brought to a school near you by Pearson Education. Texas has a whopping $450 million dollar contract with Pearson to produce and administer the STAAR tests, and they are making an enormous amount of money on all of the related instructional materials and textbooks. I would argue that it’s very difficult to avoid teaching to the test when the test maker provides all the materials for instruction. Schools are certainly motivated to have those materials so they know “what’s on the test”. Be aware parents, Pearson has very influential and well-paid lobbyists in Austin.

Unless you were the parent of a 9th grader last year, you probably don’t realize the magnitude of the changes that came with this latest evolution of testing. STAAR came about essentially for two reasons. One was another call for a further increase in rigor to address the continuing concern that kids were graduating without the skills needed for college coursework. The other was to introduce high school end-of-course exams. It was thought that having students test at the end of each course, rather than being tested at the end of 11th grade, would somehow end “teaching to the test”. Ironically, the STAAR test has had the exact opposite of the intended benefits and will continue to do so.

STAAR is designed to be more closely aligned to a more rigorous curriculum. Unfortunately, it seems that rigor has been interpreted as quantity of standards as opposed to quality and depth. It’s no wonder that we lament that kids don’t learn cursive anymore or that teenagers can’t make change at the cash register. There’s no time to spend practicing those skills when there are so many standards to cover.

More and more we will see kids who, in past years, may not have struggled with coursework, but are struggling now. Because there are so many tested standards to cover, there is very little time to master and retain skills. Even the best of students may struggle with some of the material, and those who already struggle may find themselves falling far behind. As of yet, we still don’t know how well our 3rd through 8th graders performed on their first STAAR. Passing standards have yet to be set. But we have years of evidence to show us that we can teach kids to perform better on the tests each year, but it hasn’t translated to being better prepared for college or career. In f
act, it has stifled creativity in learning and encouraged a cookbook, narrowed approach that has left our kids even less prepared for life after high school.

The most troubling aspect of STAAR is the end-of-course exams.  Under STAAR EOC, students must take and pass 15 separate exams in order to graduate under the recommended plan, TRIPLING the number of tests under the TAKS system.  English III and Algebra II must be passed with at least a Level II performance, and if that isn’t enough, STAAR EOCs are cumulative.  In other words, in order to graduate, all of a student’s scores will be added together and they must reach a cumulative score on all of their exams to graduate.  So, in theory, a student could pass all of their EOC’s with a level I performance, but still not graduate.  Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?  Originally, the punitive effects of the tests didn’t stop there.  The tests were supposed to count 15% of a student’s course grade for the year.  That rule was waived last year over the uproar from parents and educators.  Continued pressure prompted legislators to again call for a waiver of the rule for this year, and legislation has been filed to make it permanently optional for districts to implement the rule.  This measure is a step in the right direction, but even without the 15% rule, STAAR EOC’s represent a huge obstacle to graduation for many students.

Let’s take a look at how things went last year, and the urgency of the situation will become clear.  An alarming 60 percent of Texas 9th graders failed the English exam last year.  Of that 60 percent, only 20 percent passed on the July retake.  That leaves us with 20 percent of current 10th graders who not only are having to prepare for their 10th grade EOCs, but they are also having to endure another retake for a 9th grade exam this month.  While failure of a state exam was a rare thing in our area in the past, chances are if you know a 10 grader, if they didn’t fail a STAAR test, they probably know a few who did.  Imagine if they fail that 3rd retake, and then fail a 10th grade exam.  For so many students the result will be an endless cycle of testing and retesting. 

That’s not even counting those students who did manage to pass the English exam with a Level I.  Those students are also being encouraged to retake the test because of the cumulative score aspect.  It’s too risky having a Level I score on a test, since they are progressive and only get harder.  To top it off, the passing standard will be increased in 2014, setting the stage for even more students to be off track for graduation.  If we thought 20,000 students a years being denied diplomas was bad, hundreds of thousands is so much worse. 

Testing failure is also extremely costly, since school districts are obliged to provide “accelerated instruction” (read: test prep) for students who fail.  This obligation is particularly difficult to provide to so many at a time when our legislature saw fit to cut the education budget by 5.4 billion dollars (yet testing spending was left untouched).  Parents who have never had to experience the “joy” of accelerated instruction can be prepared for their student to perhaps do accelerated instruction over the summer before a July retake or have an elective replaced with an accelerated instruction class, or perhaps do it before or after school, depending on how a district or campus intends to provide the acceleration. 

Clearly, the entire situation is a disaster.  It’s all too easy for testing proponents to blame public schools or teachers, or even “lazy” kids.  It’s tempting to say that school choice will fix the problem.  However, until we replace our broken accountability system that is fixated on more and more high-stakes testing, and free our teachers from test-driven curriculum and burdensome mandates so that they can use their talent and encourage creativity in learning, we’ll never know what our public schools are capable of. 

New and innovative solutions for public schools are being suggested.  Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken suggests a common sense approach that creates multiple pathways to graduation, including vocational pathways.  Our own Lewisville ISD, as part of the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium, is charged with development of “new learning standards and accountability systems that truly assess student learning.”  Still others suggest that we look at Finland’s public school success story as a model for education reform.  All of these ideas emphasize that we much still ensure accountability, but utilize multiple methods of measurement, not just testing.  These endeavors and ideas need to be given serious consideration and yes, time to work.   Meanwhile, we cannot leave our current students drowning in a punitive testing quagmire.

So, what can we, as parents do?  There are a number of ways to become active and remember, this isn’t a lifelong sentence of education advocacy.  I am suggesting making your voice heard right now and for the next few months, just before and during this legislative session beginning in January. 

Send a note or call your State Senator and Representative and let them know how you feel about the issue.  Find your state legislators and their contact information at www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us Even a short note will be sufficient.  Do mention that you are a constituent.  I would also encourage everyone to join Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment.  This grassroots organization has been active across the state to educate parents and has been very effective in getting the attention of legislators in a very respectful way.  You can find them at tamsatx.org.  There is no money involved in this group. It’s simply adding your name to the list of parents concerned about our current path and it will help keep you informed. 

LISD parents may soon have their own grassroots organization forming as well.  Known as Speak Up for Texas Public Schools, this group is planning to hold educational events around the district after the beginning of the new year, so keep your eyes open for news or announcements. 

The actions we take collectively as parents can have a profound impact on the future of our own kids and future generations. We must also be mindful of our fellow Texans outside our neighborhood bubble. These tests have been particularly harmful for minority and low-income students and have failed to close the achievement gap. Other areas of Texas will be suffering far worse consequences as they continue to struggle with poverty, language barriers and other social issues.  Our entire state benefits when our most at-risk students are successful. 

High-stakes testing is harmful, ineffective, and expensive for all Texas students.  It’s time to change course.

Stacey Amick is a concerned Flower Mound parent.


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