January 24, 2013

Texas moms are fed up with STAAR student testing

State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness excesses "blew the powder keg" of parental frustration.

Rants, raves, reviews and resources for Dallas-Fort Worth parents

I did a double-take a year ago when Robert Scott, then the state education commissioner, said standardized testing in Texas public schools had become a "perversion" of its original intent.

Did someone in his position really say that about something that has been a hallmark of the Legislature's education policy for almost two decades?

He said it not once but twice, first to the State Board of Education and then to a meeting of the Texas Association of School Administrators, where he received a standing ovation.

Scott predicted a backlash against standardized testing in this year's session of the Texas Legislature. He left the commissioner's post before that happened, but he was right about the backlash.

As of Thursday, at least 20 bills had been filed (15 in the House and five in the Senate) seeking changes, some radical, in the way tests are administered and the way results are used in Texas schools.

Testing started out as a tool to be used in holding schools accountable for educating all students. But as Scott well knew, "what we've done over the past decade is we've doubled down on the test every couple of years and used it for more and more things to make it the be-all, end-all."

It's hard to tell exactly when testing crossed over to the dark side. But it's not hard at all to tell what triggered the current revolt: the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness testing plan that started last spring, particularly its high-stakes end-of-course exams for high school students.

"Over time, parents got fed up," says Susan Kellner, former board president at Houston's Spring Branch school district. "When they went to 15 [end-of-course exams], it blew the powder keg."

Kellner is a member of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, an organization of "concerned parents and community members" pushing to change the testing system. She and Dineen Majcher, an Austin attorney and TAMSA co-founder, have been traveling the state lining up support.

The two are mothers of students who took STAAR tests last year, and they don't like where this is headed.

"We're not trying to kill testing entirely," Majcher said in a meeting with the Star-Telegram Editorial Board. "We don't think STAAR has been rolled out in the right way."

Fifteen end-of-course exams, all with a pass-or-you-don't-go-to-a-Texas-college mandate, put too much pressure on students and are not a good accountability measure for schools, Majcher said.

TAMSA advocates:

Using nationally recognized tests and comparing the results to national norms rather than tests that are designed at great expense exclusively for Texas.

Require students to pass only two end-of-course exams for high school graduation, English II Reading and Algebra I. Those subjects best measure college readiness, Majcher and Kellner said.

Eliminating the requirement that end-of-course exam scores count as 15 percent of a student's grade. Michael Williams, who was appointed education commissioner after Scott left, has suspended that requirement while lawmakers study the STAAR testing plan.

Other TAMSA complaints include that some of the end-of-course exams must be given as many as eight weeks before the end of the semester, that the results aren't reported until after the semester is over, that parents get no information that will help them be a part of the teaching process and that state funding for teacher preparation was cut from the state budget.

TAMSA seems to be a well-grounded, committed and effective grassroots effort that will spur the Legislature to action. Its members should be commended for that.

But lawmakers should be careful and deliberate in changing STAAR. Student assessment and school accountability in Texas didn't go wrong overnight, and it's dangerous to look for a quick fix. The Legislature must not throw out the good points with the bad.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.


Twitter: @mnorman9

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