Testing and Texas-The Local Experience

I have discussed the rationale for standardized testing in a previous post as well as the situation state-wide. Today, let’s take a look at what’s happening in Seguin ISD. As you are aware, we struggle with our test performance. Our pass rates on the tests, whether at the elementary, middle, or high school levels, are well below the state average. The achievement gap, the difference in performance between poor and non-poor students as well as the difference between Hispanic or black and white students is large and not shrinking. Our special education students perform especially poorly and we struggle to help our non-English-speaking students perform well. This resulted, last year, in two of our elementary schools failing to meet the state standard and another two just barely passing. It should be noted that a failing grade, in this case, means performing in the bottom 5% of schools state-wide. Passing is a very low bar when 95% of schools are able to do so.

It should be noted that Seguin ISD faces some unique headwinds in its efforts to teach students. The district has large numbers of economically disadvantaged students (68%) and is also 69% Hispanic. Both of these populations tend to perform poorly on standardized tests. In addition, the district suffered the same cuts to its budget that other districts did as a result of the State Legislature’s education budget cuts in 2011. However, it is also only fair to note that there are other Texas districts with similar demographics and funding that are successfully educating their students. This proves that it IS possible to succeed. Why not us?

I argue that our lack of success lies in our approach. School districts can take two approaches to the state testing mandates. The first approach is what I would call a holistic educational approach. With such an approach, the goal is to provide each student with an excellent education, tailoring it to his or her individual talents, needs, and goals. The focus is on excellent classroom instruction, differentiated to meet each student’s needs. These districts develop good teachers, support them with quality resources, and expect that each student, having value, will be taught effectively. Seeing the student pass the STAAR test is not a goal in itself; it is merely a confirmation that the educational process is occurring as it should. And that is, after all the goal of all of this testing. Legislators didn’t institute these tests just to have kids tested. The goal is to ensure they are being taught.

That is not, however, how it is often being viewed in the trenches of our classrooms. All too often, the point of testing has become simple: PASS THE TEST. That is the entire goal. It is the goal on the first day of school and on each day thereafter. It is the goal of superintendents, principals, counselors, teachers, and, yes, parents. The test has become the goal. It matters not what else goes on during the 180 days of the school year. All that matters is the test.

Unfortunately, this philosophy is present in a lot of struggling districts, including Seguin ISD. STAAR test performance has become an end in itself rather than simply a demonstration of the effectiveness of our classrooms. How does this look? Field trips were curtailed this year in order to maximize classroom instructional time. At the elementary level, the teaching of social studies and science was curtailed early this year to allow for more time drilling the students in reading and math. Why? Because reading and math are on the STAAR tests. Social studies and science? Not so much. Finally, the district hired a testing coaching firm to help struggling students to take the test more effectively. This is not about teaching content. Rather, they have been coaching students on how to take the test. The result? Our most at-risk students have been removed from classrooms with teachers in order to spend time with testing coaches.

Will these interventions be successful? I suppose that depends on your definition of success. Perhaps more of our students will pass the STAAR tests. Perhaps more of our schools will scrape over the passing standard bar. But will it demonstrate that we are teaching our students more effectively? I have my doubts.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens