credit: corpgov.net

credit: corpgov.net

For the last six weeks, I have relentlessly drilled my tenth grade students on one topic. But that’s not all. We have also, at the demand of my school district, wiped out at least another week doing testing in the same pursuit, and since the beginning of the year, I’d estimate I’ve spent at least two more weeks, here and there, a Monday here, a Thursday there, doing the same thing. I have seven more days of preparation remaining. And what, gentle readers, you ask, have I spend some 28% of my available school year doing?

Why, preparing kids for the single most important reason schools exist these days: the generation of data. I’m preparing them to try to pass the high stakes, mandatory English test, the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) test. If they don’t pass the test, they don’t graduate from high school. Every academic achievement of 12 years of schooling matters not. But if they did well in school, they should be able to pass the test! Not quite. The STAAR tests–there are five in various subjects–are not about education. They’re about political power and money.

To understand this disaster, a bit of background information is in order.  When I came to the Texas public schools 14 years ago, was the TASS tests, which were, of course, absolutely state of the art and perfect, and if you didn’t believe that, all you had to do was ask the TEA–Texas Education Agency–and the test maker–Pearson–who would set you right. This meant that the perfect TASS tests had to be replaced by the even more perfect TAKS tests, and if you didn’t believe that…you get the picture.

But about three years ago, seeing an opportunity to seize unprecedented power over people’s lives and to waste an absolutely unprecedented amount of taxpayer money–about half a billion over five years on tests alone–Texas legislators and test lobbyists went berserk and concocted a scheme whereby kids would have to pass not four or five tests, but fifteen! Fifteen absolutely perfect, state of the art tests!  The legislature were patting themselves on the back over constructing a ground-breaking educational regime that would vault Texas to the very top of whatever race to the top was racing to the top, educrats were giddy with delight over the new power they would amass, and Pearson’s accountants were orgasmic with joy.

Texan children and parents: not so much.

credit: imed.k12.ms.us

credit: imed.k12.ms.us

It took a remarkably short time for the legislature, which in Texas can be exceptionally thick-headed and resistant to necessarily rational changes, to realize they had created a monster that absolutely could not work, for reasons practical, academic, organizational and constitutional. Essentially, all kids would do all year is drill for the tests, and that couldn’t be easily hidden or blamed on the schools.  However, before they were able to act on that realization, one year of students was forced to take the newly developed, perfect STAAR tests where were billed as far more rigorous than the TAKS tests. And so they were, if one defines rigor as failing unprecedented numbers of kids due to badly designed and executed tests. What actually happened was that Pearson got lazy and greedy and dipped into their methodology for writing the SAT, and so all kids in tenth grade were forced to take tests designed for older, more intellectually-attuned, college focused kids.

The numbers of kids failing–in the tens of thousands–shocked everybody, not that they came to right conclusions. But the uproar of parents, school boards and administrators and some legislators was sufficient to force the legislature to pare the grand scheme back to five tests with far less regulation. But the damage had been done. The next year–last year–a newly redesigned STAAR test had been produced and the results were no better.

The problem was not difficult to understand, at least not if politics and money were not one’s primary concern. Either Texan children and teachers had, within the space of a year or two, suddenly become stupid, or something was terribly wrong with the test. But rather than admitting that the test is the problem–that would require admitting that the legislature got it very, very wrong, and that the TEA wasn’t nearly as interested in the welfare and education of children as such an agency should be–the legislature is playing at half-measures. The Dallas Morning News reports:

The Senate voted Tuesday to ease the state’s high school graduation requirements, clearing the way for thousands of seniors to be exempted from state end-of-course exams this year.

Under the measure by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, seniors who meet certain requirements could be exempted from having to pass all five of the end-of-course tests now required to receive a diploma.

Those students would have to pass at least three exams and get a passing average in all their core classes. In addition, they would have to get the testing waiver approved by a committee at the school.

The bill was passed on a 28-2 vote and sent to the House, where its prospects are unclear. Voting no were Sens. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Seliger said his measure is aimed at the 28,000 seniors who are in danger of not graduating this spring because they have not passed one or more of the STAAR end-of-course tests. That figure represents about 10 percent of the class of 2015.

‘This is not designed to provide an easy exit for students,’ Seliger said, contending it would help students who otherwise meet graduation requirements. ‘These students will now be able to walk across the stage with their classmates in May.

The Texas House will take up the bill soon, and it’s likely to pass, but the problems have just begun. The tests have always been mandatory, a stick/stick approach, with denial of graduation as the stick. Absent that, the thinking goes, kids wouldn’t try. This is certainly true, but entirely rational. Kids are smart, but not experienced. Even so, they realize that the score on a single test reveals virtually nothing meaningful about an individual’s intellect or future abilities. Far more meaningful is their academic achievement over time, which is why, in part, we require 12 years of elementary and secondary schooling. The rest of the equation is that school is not merely a place for the downloading of information. Far more social issues are involved.

Remove the stick, and most kids will blow off the test.  If most kids blow off the test, the utter uselessness of spending hundreds of millions on the tests will be finally, inescapably exposed, and political heads will roll.  And eventually, people will realize what a bad idea the whole thing was from day one.

Until the mandatory testing fad, kids and parents operated under a social contract that understood not everyone was going to be good at everything. Even if little Johnny was never really any good at algebra, as long as he did well in the rest of his classes, no one was going to be worried about his future or the future of the nation. And so it went for more than two centuries as America became the intellectual and technological powerhouse of the world.

Keep in mind that the issue is not just the tenth graders that have to take the STAAR test this year. The problem is that those same children in elementary years past had to prepare for and take the TAKS tests, which were very different animals indeed. Suddenly switching from TAKS to STAAR in a single year was wrenching and destructive. Also keep in mind that the STAAR test is evolving from year to year as the people at Pearson and the TEA try to figure out where the balance between actual “rigor” and simply failing kids that don’t deserve to fail lies.

From year to year, each STAAR test will eventually–this will probably take another two years–have more of less the same types of questions, but because two thirds of the English test is graded entirely subjectively–there isn’t a specific correct answer–it’s impossible to compare the scores from year to year. A student failing the test one year because of the peculiar wording of the essay prompt, may find the wording of the following year’s prompt more rational and pass. That sort of thing happens all the time.

Even the multiple-choice sections of the English test aren’t entirely objective. I’m sure, gentle readers, you’ve taken tests where you weren’t being asked for a correct answer so much as you had to figure out which of several “correct” answers the test makers thought to be “most correct.” The test is rife with those. Last year I did several mass tutoring sessions for our tenth grade boys on how to understand the new poetry section of the STAAR. Fortunately, our principal sat in and was amazed and disgusted to find that for many of the questions, there were easily two correct answers, and the “most correct” answer favored by the TEA and Pearson often didn’t make sense. In essence, I was having to teach the kids how to think like test makers and educrats, how to take a very specific test, not anything meaningful about literature.

That’s my complaint. I’m spending between 28-33% of the school year on this damned test. That’s a huge amount of time my students won’t be studying materials they desperately need to become informed, thoughtful highly literate adults. We’re supposedly preparing them all for college–that’s another current fad–by teaching them how to take tests, the likes of which they’ll never see in College or elsewhere.

But without the high stakes tests, how will we know how children are doing? How will we know how our schools are doing? What will replace them?

What will replace them? The actual English curriculum. Books and plays, and writing and speaking and learning how to be literate and to appreciate reading, all of the things drilling for the tests have taken from kids, all of which they had before the testing fad.

Any parent wanting to know how their child is doing need only e-mail, or better yet, stop by my classroom where they can see every assignment their child did throughout the entire year. They can see every word they wrote, the progress of their child’s brain as it made new neural connections and became more effective and capable. And if their child did not take advantage of the educational opportunity I provided, their parents can see that too. By that measure, do we discover how the school is doing. That’s what schools ultimately do: provide the best possible educational opportunity. If students and parents don’t take advantage of that opportunity, the greatest teachers in the world can’t help them.

We’re dealing with human beings. Understanding the educational process from top to bottom requires thoughtful care and attention to individuals. Crunching data and paying out taxpayer billions doesn’t. We need to return to grading students, not buildings.