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Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

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5 Comments

  1. “Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?”
    -Whether we blame apathy, ignorance, redistricting or bleeding news leads, many folks don’t know who their Congressman is, much less their State Reps and Senators. I wonder if some combination of carrots and sticks would move more to cast an informed vote. I hate having to show ID to vote, but what if we had to show a voter ID to get a drivers license, or get a better tax rate? and I’ve always been partial to the idea of requiring folks to pass an elementary civics exam to show fitness to vote (I always think of this when I see some poll that shows Americans don’t recognize or approve of, say, the Bill of Rights.)

  2. Anna Eastman says:

    Hi Charles,

    I absolutely agree that the STAAR has taken over our districts, classrooms and buildings. I also want to point out that NCLB also dictates the number of tests and the levels of administration. That is why we are have the problem of double testing advanced math students in seventh and eighth grade.*

    I also think the local leadership has a bigger hand in these issues than you’ve pointed out. As a parent, I am less bothered the test than I am by the overarching and narrow focus on the test . . . that we’ve essentially allowed the test to wag the tail of the dog. There’s much room for debate about how policy impacts behavior, but I wish we would see people challenge administration on how class time is spent and the content kids are exposed to, rather than focusing on opt out movements. How about opting out of the test based benchmarks and mock tests, rather than the official administration to send a message?

    I’m dealing with this from two vantage points: parent and policy maker. As a policy maker, I’m not quite ready to throw out accountability. I know transparency in reporting is definitely missing because we focus on pass rates which are set by the state law makers and are extremely misleading. The pass rates are manipulated so it looks like schools are doing better than they usually are. My fear is that we will never have a productive dialogue around how to hold ourselves accountable for educating all kids if we don’t have some type of high quality measurement that is aligned to a common set of knowlege we want all kids to be able to access.

    As a parent, I particularly hate when my kids have to spend time taking practice tests or waiting around doing NOTHING while other kids test. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with what they are learning in school. The years they have had teachers who’ve refused to focus solely on testing, they’ve actually done the best on the tests. I worry about other kids who aren’t having that experience and I see it everyday when I look at data that tells us our kids aren’t getting the rich, deep instruction that results in high literacy levels and critical thinking skills.

    I maintain hope that you really can have both. I worry that if we elimnate any higher stakes testing, we won’t have any way to tell if those responsible for their schooling are actually making an impact.

    Thanks for engaging in this discussion! Anna

  3. Mike says:

    My wife was brought in to teach 4th grade at a school in HISD and her kids, many of them ESL or straight out of Iraq and Syria, really enjoyed having her as their teacher. My wife is a Rice grad with a masters degree as well. Unfortunately in November after her kids did not score well enough on their TAAKs or STAAR or whatever she was taken out of the classroom. In what other industry do you take highly qualified people, put them in a very difficult situation, and then blame them and punish them when they are unable to perform miracles in 3 months? Remember, many of these kids are barely able to speak English or are recent political refugees. My wife was getting them to learn and write, when other teachers simply yell at these students and pass them on to the next grade. Unfortunately HISD tolerates the “prisoner” approach to teaching even if does not produce results, but does not support highly qualified creative teachers if they can find a reason to get rid of them. Not improving test scores in unreasonable time periods or not being a strict disciplinarian is a good enough reason I’m afraid in most of HISD…

  4. Stephen says:

    First off, you (Charles) really hit the nail on the head about learning about candidates. It’s bad enough individuals have to do that work: it’s even worse when you don’t know how to do that work. I don’t. And I’m probably in the very upper percentiles of Texans with the “wherewithal” to be knowledgable. I would love a non-profit with an awesome database that tracks all these office holders, even if the information they provide isn’t hard-hitting in every case.

    Second, I agree with the notion some of the people above are getting at. The idea that students are subjected to “teaching to the test” is at least partly schools’ and teachers’ faults. I know of a teacher at a very excellent public school where teachers get in serious trouble if the principals find out they’re using test prep materials as a teaching tool (other than, of course, legitimate test prep so the kids are familiar with the testing format etc), Contrast this with many HISD schools where 9-year-olds are put through a daily regimen of horrible reading worksheets and mandatory, months-long stretches of test prep instead of deep learning.

  5. Jim says:

    I think accountability measures are needed to close the achievement gap and shine a spotlight on minority groups to make sure they are not ignored. That is one thing No Child Left Behind has succeeded at, and it would be horrible to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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