Education is a highly faddish pursuit. Fads spring up on a regular basis, and then, normally with 10-15 years, fade away, leaving educators that once thought them transformative and very important wondering why anyone could possibly have harbored such ridiculous and destructive ideas. For the most part, such “educators” are not classroom teachers, but educrats, principals and administrators. Teachers know better. They know that human beings have learned in exactly the same ways since the days of Aristotle.
Each fad, however, has terrible costs. Were it not for the fact that most teachers never become true believers and do whatever they have to do to make their administrators think they’re buying into the fads while simply shutting their doors when the bell rings and teaching as well as they can despite those administrators, the consequences for society would be horrific. I say this because most fads are not helpful, and many are actively harmful to providing the best possible educational opportunity for kids.
I sometimes hear politicians and others–including the occasional teacher–say “we can’t do away with high stakes, mandatory tests; with what would we replace them?” When I hear such nonsense, I merely shake my head and walk away. No sense trying to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.
With what would we replace them?! The same methods and practices that existed before such tests. The same methods and practices that made America the technological, academic center of the world, the most successful, prosperous nation in history. The same methods and practices that will exist long after the tests are relegated to the waste heap of history and the billions wasted on them are once more available for actual education.
Fortunately, there is evidence that the pendulum is beginning to swing back toward rationality once again. Let us use Texas as our guide, as it is in Texas that I teach, and Texas, for good or ill, arguably remains the state that most affects educational planning around the nation.
While hard numbers are difficult to come by, Texas has been contracting with Pearson, the company that produces its tests and all related materials and services, since roughly 1980. The best guess is Texas has paid Pearson more than a billion dollars in that time, probably much more. That does not count the untold millions squandered to hire state staff to deal with the tests, or the huge sums of money local districts spend in compliance. Even in Texas, that’s real money, money denied Texas students in furtherance of their educations.
And what do these tests produce at obscene cost in money and irreplaceable time? One data point for each student taking each test; the result of a single test taken on one day of their lives. Those interested in delving into matters in more depth, take this link to the first article of my “Tyranny of Testing” four-part series. The bottom line is the tests produce a single data point we don’t need, and that means nothing in aiding kids in become better educated. Colleges do not use these test scores in making admissions decisions, and businesses could care less. As with all political issues, to determine who benefits, follow the money.
The Worm Turns:
One early sign that the pendulum was beginning to swing back to the rationality of no STAAR testing occurred several years ago in 2013 when the Texas Legislature passed section 39.0263 of the education code limiting benchmark tests:
Administration of District-Required Benchmark Assessment Instruments to Prepare Students for State-Administered Assessment Instruments
(a) In this section, ‘benchmark assessment instrument’ means a district-required assessment instrument designed to prepare students for a corresponding state-administered assessment instrument.
(b) Except as provided by Subsection (c), a school district may not administer to any student more than two benchmark assessment instruments to prepare the student for a corresponding state-administered assessment instrument.
(c) The prohibition prescribed by this section does not apply to the administration of a college preparation assessment instrument, including the PSAT, the ACT-Plan, the SAT, or the ACT, an advanced placement test, an international baccalaureate examination, or an independent classroom examination designed or adopted and administered by a classroom teacher.
One of the inevitable consequences of mandatory, high stakes testing–in Texas, the current models are the STAAR tests–is that local school districts will require mandatory “benchmark” testing to give them some idea of how students might do on the STAAR. Most school districts go berserk, requiring as many as six–sometime more–of the damned things. Add at least a day for each benchmark test, and add too the days of preparation necessary for each benchmark test, and you realize that many schools lose weeks of instructional time to preparing to test to prepare for the STAAR test alone.
The Legislature, dimly beginning to recognize the entirely predictable consequences of their STAAR mandates, limited districts to no more than two benchmarks per year. And did this fix things? Of course not. There are no teeth in the law. Any potential penalties are administrative. So school districts just called benchmark tests something else, kept on giving them, and the Texas Education Agency–TEA–which is all about political power and money, did nothing. Even so, that single bit of legislation pushed the pendulum in the right direction.
The next push occurred in 2015. Dallasnews.com reports:
High school seniors will be able to fail two of the state’s five graduation tests and still receive a diploma under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Greg Abbott. The measure essentially means seniors will only have to pass three freshman-year exams to graduate.
Approved overwhelmingly by the House and Senate [emphasis mine], the legislation will exempt thousands of students from the state’s graduation requirements, which until now called on seniors to pass five end-of course exams before getting a diploma.
Students still have to get a passing average in all their core classes. In addition, they will have to obtain a testing waiver from a special graduation committee if they were unable to pass one or two EOC exams.
‘While it is critical that the state appropriately holds public schools and districts accountable for delivering the best possible education, we must protect Texas students from being penalized as a result of evolving test standards,’ Abbott said in announcing his signing of the measure. The governor noted that the Class of 2015 is the first group of seniors required to pass a battery of EOC tests to receive a diploma.
‘Senate Bill 149 protects students from undue penalization, and guarantees that students who meet specified requirements are able to graduate. I will continue to work with the Legislature to create and maintain standards of excellence for our schools so that our shared goals for public education can be accomplished,’ he said.
Sponsors said the measure is aimed at the 28,000 seniors from the Class of 2015 who are in danger of not graduating because they have not passed one or more of the STAAR end-of-course tests. That figure represents about 10 percent of the class. About three-fourths of those students failed one or two of the exams.
And there we see what is motivating the legislature. Ten percent of a statewide graduating class failing to graduate tends to focus one’s attention. The passing scores were much higher on the TAKS tests, which were replaced by the STAAR tests, and failure rates skyrocketed. This left two obvious possibilities: Texas children and teachers suddenly, in the space of a single year–got stupid, or there is something fundamentally wrong with the tests and the philosophy behind them. The legislature can’t admit all at once that it has wasted more than a billion dollars, but it’s chipping away at the façade little by little.
Three of the five EOC exams – Algebra I, English I and biology – are typically given in the first year of high school and another test – English II during sophomore year. The fifth exam, in U.S. history, is mostly taken in junior year. For Algebra I and biology, students only have to get 37 percent of the test items correct to pass.
Here is another interesting facet of the tests. Tests other than English are objective, and done in multiple-choice format. One either knows the material–much of which must be memorized–or they don’t. As a result, passing rates of those tests have increased. But the English tests are almost entirely subjective. They require writing, graded by human beings hired temporarily once a year and “calibrated” to give consistent scores. In effect, the wording of a prompt or question, to say nothing of how the graders choose to grade a given paper, have an enormous effect on passing rates. I had several students this year forced to retake the 9th grade test and also take the 10th grade test. They failed the 9th grade test, but passed the 10th, which is supposedly more advanced. How, pray tell, is that possible?
Another facet is that the English STAAR tests require abstract reasoning. Human beings are not generally capable of that until around the age of 18. Students taking the 10th grade test are 16 at the most. We can teach them techniques that will allow them to fake abstract thinking, but when the test makers write questions that actually require it, the kids are helpless.
Thoughtful readers have noticed that this particular fad has already existed for 35 years in Texas. That’s an extraordinarily long time, made possible, no doubt, by the extraordinarily large sums of money and political power available in America’s fastest growing and most prosperous state. Even so, with the new law, test scores can move in only one direction: down. When students and parents realize they need to pass only three of five tests–and they could have that in the bag their 9th grade year–they will have little incentive to do more. My students passing the 10th grade English test, but failing the 9th, are supposed to retake the 9th grade test until they pass. Now, why should they? For them, state English mandates are past them. No local school committee is going to deny them graduation for that.
Oh yes: let’s not forget that each make up test costs Texas millions.
The problem is schools will still be obliged to drill and kill students, losing irreplaceable instructional time, for tests large numbers of kids could care less about passing. I lose more than two months a year in this futile pursuit. That’s more than a third of my traditional curriculum lost, never to be made up.
But can students simply be exempted from STAAR? Yes and no. There is no specific state law, no administrative procedure that allows parents to opt their child out. There is this law:
Sec. 26.010. EXEMPTION FROM INSTRUCTION.
(a) A parent is entitled to remove the parent’s child temporarily from a class or other school activity that conflicts with the parent’s religious or moral beliefs if the parent presents or delivers to the teacher of the parent’s child a written statement authorizing the removal of the child from the class or other school activity. A parent is not entitled to remove the parent’s child from a class or other school activity to avoid a test or to prevent the child from taking a subject for an entire semester.
(b) This section does not exempt a child from satisfying grade level or graduation requirements in a manner acceptable to the school district and the agency.
The TEA has interpreted the law to mean that “test” means STAAR tests too. I suspect that was not the legislative intention, that the legislature simply didn’t want parents exempting little Johnny from the weekly math test as a means of avoiding learning.
That’s not the only exemption possibility.
Every year, some students simply don’t show up on the days when the STAAR test and make up tests are given. I always have several. They suffer no consequences. After all, what can we do? Force them to sit at a desk and grab their hands and move their pencils on the paper? If a student doesn’t want to try, there is nothing we can, practically or legally, do about it.
There have been a number of Texas students who actually refused the tests and were accepted in colleges without a high school diploma, eventually graduating without difficulties. Remember that colleges could care less if a student took the STAAR test or their score on that test. Colleges are also more than free to accept students without a high school graduation certificate, and many do. Most college administrations and faculty, perhaps at least in part because there is no political power or money in it for them, do not imagine STAAR testing to be of any value.
Again, the problem for such students is that they will be obliged to sit in on the test drills foisted on every other student. Opting out of the STAAR does not restore the curriculum lost to all students. That knowledge, those neural connections, are lost forever, and all for the benefit of Pearson and those making taxpayer money on Pearson’s coattails.
Another option is also being explored. Parents can opt their children out of the tests, and with a short time left in their student’s senior year, withdraw their child from school and home school them, issuing them a home school graduation certificate, such certificates being widely accepted by colleges and any other entity that cares about such things. This is fully legal. Unfortunately, these kids too end up losing all of that instructional time to test drills.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. STAAR testing will continue for perhaps six more years in Texas before it crumbles under its own weight and testing true believers and Pearson will have to figure out other ways to empty public treasuries. I don’t begrudge any business meeting a public need and making an honest buck, but the entire business of STAAR testing is hopelessly corrupt, and on a Texas-sized scale. It has never been about benefiting children–at least not in large part–but it has enriched many.
And the pendulum continues to swing.