Last time, I wrote about the rise of standardized testing nationwide for our public school students, specifically about the problems it is supposed to address. Today, let’s take a look at how Texas is implementing the program. Over the last several years, new curriculum, guided by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), has been introduced. The goal of TEKS is to raise the standards for learning across the state by demanding more rigorous instruction. In tandem, the STAAR tests have been introduced, designed specifically with these standards in mind. The plan, as devised by the Texas Legislature and the Texas Education Agency, is fairly straightforward: introduce more rigorous standards and then test students to ensure that the standards are being met. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out as anticipated. Over the first few years, the goal was to gradually raise the passing standards on the tests as students learned better and teachers became used to teaching to the TEKS. However, this hasn’t happened. The passing standards have remained unchanged (they are finally going to be raised slightly this year) and student performance hasn’t budged. Pass rates for the STAAR tests are largely unchanged statewide. The reasons for this are many and complex. However, as with most things, one major issue is evident: money.
At the same time that Texas introduced TEKS and STAAR, there was this little thing called the Great Recession. Texas found itself in a budget crisis. The Legislature’s response was austerity-massive budget cuts. That included an unprecedented cut to the state education budget of $5.4 billion in 2011. This was not $5.4 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars or a “reduction in the rate of increase”. This was a cut, pure and simple. Worse, it came as Texas continued to experience rapid population growth.
To Texas teachers and administrators, the message was pretty straightforward: teach better but do it with far less money. And this came when Texas was already near the bottom of the nation in funding for education. The result was predictable: teacher layoffs, larger class-sizes, stagnating teacher pay pushing people out of the profession, and stagnant test scores. In the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions, legislators restored a significant amount of the $5.4 billion, but per-pupil funding still remains below 2011 levels and Texas’ population continues to grow at one of the fastest rates in the nation.
I generally try to avoid naming names. And the responsibility for the funding decisions made by the State of Texas is certainly shared. However, some seem intent on denying even the existence of the problem. In particular, our Attorney General, Ken Paxton, seems to feel everything is great. In response to questions about how the cuts to education have impacted our schools, his response was that “our schools are doing well”. Really? SAT scores are dropping. STAAR test results are stagnant, and 31 districts in the state are still getting less money per pupil than in 2011. I don’t call that doing well. Most independent evaluations of public education give Texas a “D” or “F” grade for its efforts.
In any case, the bottom line is that schools are being required to do more with less. And in most cases, it’s not going well. I do not believe we can solve our problems in education by throwing more money at them, but I also don’t believe we can bring our public schools to the level we want without more funding. Next time, we’ll take a look at how SISD has responded to the mandates and the funding issues.
Together, we can do better.