For many Texans, the state’s current standardized test – STAAR – represents everything that is wrong with public education. The annual assessments for grades 3 thru 12 have been blamed for everything from killing teacher innovation in the classroom, creating unnecessary stress for students while failing to produce more prepared graduates.
So, State Board of Education chairwoman Donna Bahorich is correct to restart the state’s conversation with a series of public forums to help shape what the next phase of accountability testing should look like. Bahorich is gathering public input for the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, created by the Texas Legislature last session to help determine the state’s next steps in school accountability.
As reported by American-Statesman’s Julie Chang last weekend, the ideas from advocates and parents are wide-ranging, including: winnowing down state standards that drive the current test, removing the requirement that students pass to graduation, online testing and replacing high school student’s end of course exams with the SAT or ACT.
But before choosing a new testing regime, educators, policymakers, business leaders and parents need to figure out what exactly the state is testing for. After all, inappropriate use of a single test is what got public education into this accountability mess in the first place.
Seriously, what do we really want the test to tell us?
Are we checking to make sure that an individual student makes progress so they will be ready to enter the workforce or college upon graduation? Are we trying to make sure that parents know which schools are meeting state standards? Are we looking to weed out teachers who do not cover the state’s required curriculum? Are we double checking that students have mastered specific skills and getting early intervention if they are not?
Each of those scenarios require a different kind of test. The inability to agree on a single measure has led to the proliferation of testing, consuming the academic calendar. And when you look at the charge to the new commission in House Bill 2804, it is clear that it has been tasked with accountability’s version of the kitchen sink.
That’s not to say that ideas such as substituting the ACT for end of year high school tests should be dismissed out of hand. There’s a lot to like about using a single, shorter test to determine college or career readiness — which in the end is what colleges and employers really care about. However, end of year tests measure mastery — did the student learn specific material and skills that should have been taught by the teacher – not readiness.
So using the ACT, or a test like it as a replacement test for accountability, which has recently been allowed by the latest federal education standards, would make plans by districts like Austin to use test scores as part of teacher evaluations inappropriate. The broader testing criteria makes it even harder than it already is to attribute a student’s success to a single teacher. It is also an inadequate diagnostic tool to determine what specific skills a student might need to bone up on to improve performance.
The ACT (or SAT) may be more familiar than the current array of alphabet soup test names, however even the old standbys have their critics. Income and parental education are huge predictors of how a student will perform, which throws into question whether the assessments measure a family’s financial resources or a student’s ability to perform.
And lastly, switching to the ACT readiness standard will do little to immediately relieve the sinking sense that Texas students are underachieving. In 2015, only 41 percent of Texas graduates took the test. Of those students 59 percent met the English readiness benchmark and less than 45 percent passed the reading, math or science thresholds.
The prediction is that if we expanded the test to include all students, even those who are not college bound, the passing rates would be much, much lower.