Testing and Texas-You Don’t Get Something for Nothing

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.

Bob Stephens

It’s Spring! Time for….Testing?

It is spring, that time when “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” if you happen to be Lord Tennyson. If, on the other hand, you happen to be involved in public education, it’s that time when everyone’s fancy is focused on standardized testing. All students in grades 3-12 will be taking standardized tests to measure their proficiency in the coming weeks. For some, their performance will determine whether they are promoted to the next grade or whether they graduate.

In past posts, I have described Texas’ version of these tests, the STAAR tests, in some detail. I will not do so again. Instead, I want to shine a broader light on the State of Texas and how we got to this point-where the STAAR tests are hated by students, teachers, administrators, and legislators alike. In this installment, let’s talk about why we are doing this testing in the first place.

The use of standardized testing has grown out of a couple of very real problems. First, there was no way to reliably measure the quality of education across districts and across states. Getting an “A” in a class doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a given student learned anything. Often, passing grades were handed out despite ample evidence that students weren’t learning. This was particularly a problem for minority and poor students who all to often were simply passed along and eventually tracked into vocational education programs. It also hurt special education students, as there was no way to measure the quality of their learning. This also caused problems as our society became more mobile. Students moving to other districts or other states often found significant differences in the quality of education and sometimes ended up having to do remedial work.

The second problem was a recognition that students in the U.S. were falling further and further behind their peers in other countries. As our society has become more global, our students are at an increasing disadvantage in the job market, competing against students from other countries with better skills and knowledge. We can argue about solutions, but very few deny that our educational system is not on the same level as other western, industrialized countries.

The solution currently being tried is two-fold. First, there is an attempt to make curricula more rigorous. Whether it be Common Core, TEKS, or some other states’ solutions, the goal is to improve the quality of what is being taught. The second part of the equation is the implementation of standardized testing. The goal is to raise educational quality for all students, narrow the gaps in achievement between different populations, and make us more competitive globally. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this approach actually works and in Texas, there is evidence that it’s not. There is no question that testing is making a lot of people miserable. Teachers, administrators, students, and parents all seem to despise this annual ritual. A common refrain I hear and see on social media is “just ditch the tests and let teachers teach. While this sounds great, it doesn’t help address the underlying problem: instructional quality in the classroom is lagging in Texas and across the country. Let’s use one local example. Each year, about 25% of our high school students take Advanced Placement (AP) classes. In general, these are the top students academically. The curricula in these classes are designed to allow students to pass the AP test, earning college credit. Our students are by and large earning passing marks in these classes. However, performance on the AP tests is poor, with passing rates of about 25%. It begs the question: why are students performing well in the AP class but failing the AP test? Without a standardized test, there would be no outside frame of reference to tell us that, in fact, our students aren’t being taught what they need to learn. Our students would get the passing grade and move on. No one the wiser. We need to have some way to objectively measure the quality of instruction in each district, school, and classroom. Enter the STAAR tests.

Next time, we’ll look at STAAR test performance and why, statewide, things haven’t gone as expected.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens