Texas’ testing fails students

On March 12 the Texas House Education Committee approved HB 5, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Aycock, R-Killeen, that would reduce the number of standardized tests Texas high school students are required to take and eliminate a rule that requires students’ scores on those tests to count toward 15 percent of their final grades. Although the bill has yet to pass both the House and the Senate, its progress makes it more likely much needed repair to the state’s dysfunctional educational assessment program.

Under the state’s current standardized testing scheme, the STAAR exams, students at public high schools take a total of 15 tests covering five subject areas: one each year in math, science, social studies and English, which is split into reading and writing sections. The so-called “15 percent rule” requires that students’ scores on these tests count toward 15 percent of their final grades in each subject area. A lack of guidelines for translating test scores into grades has made implementation of the rule inconsistent across school districts, leading to its suspension for each of the two years it has been in place.

Aycock’s bill follows nearly two years of outcry from educators and parents across the state who are concerned that the current testing routine puts too much pressure on students and fails to assess intellectual growth accurately.

Nearly 86 percent of Texas school districts have passed resolutions condemning the current testing system, according to Aycock. And last year, the superintendents of nine North Texas school districts authored a letter criticizing the state’s testing strategy in particular and educational model in general, saying, “The system of the past will not prepare our students to lead in the future, and neither will the standardized tests that so dominate instructional time.”

Current students at UT graduated high school never having taken the tests at the root of the current controversy — all Texas public school students who began ninth grade prior to the 2011-2012 school year took the less rigorous TAKS test.  So while changes to the state’s standardized testing scheme would not directly impact students already at UT, the extent to which the tests affect overall educational quality at the state’s public schools will determine in part if students are ready for college-level work when they walk onto campus for the first time.

Because UT’s state-mandated admissions policy accepts students who are ranked in the top 10 percent of their high schools (and not in the top 10 percent of students in the state overall), some students arrive on campus better prepared for the rigors of college than others. Inconsistencies in educational quality across school districts and even across high schools within the same districts mean that levels of college readiness vary significantly among new students.

Cassandre Alvarado, assistant dean for assessment and college readiness in the School of Undergraduate Studies says, “What happens in K-12 impacts what we do with our students dramatically.” UT, like all public universities in Texas, is required to provide developmental education to students who enroll at the University but do not meet the academic standards established by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. This is significant because results from the first round of STAAR tests show that only one-third of Texas students would have passed the test with scores indicating they are “college ready.”

Rep. Aycock’s bill calls for students to take tests once during their high school careers in writing, reading, algebra I, biology and U.S. history. According to Aycock, tests in these subjects would adequately demonstrate students’ ability in all other related fields. For example, a student’s competency in biology would indicate a comparable competency in other sciences like physics and chemistry. Our own high school report cards indicate that this is not necessarily the case, so while we may not agree with the specifics of Aycock’s proposal, we do agree that less time spent testing students and more time spent teaching them is a move in the right direction.

Alvarado says that although UT administrators cannot lobby at the Capitol — even when the legislation in question will affect the school — she is confident that lawmakers are seeking policies that will help more Texas students to become college and career ready upon graduation from high school.

For our part, we believe this preparation can be achieved most effectively by spending less time debating the particulars of standardized testing schemes and more time restoring the $4 billion cut from the state education budget made during the last legislative session. HB 5 promises to bring order to an out-of-control testing regimen, but streamlining end-of-term assessment doesn’t do much to improve the actual instruction and learning the tests are meant to measure and the aspects of education that matter most.