Please take out your No. 2 pencil and complete the following sentence:
Our state’s fixation on high-stakes standardized testing…
(a) Improves the quality of public education.
(b) Prepares our students to compete in a global economy.
(c ) Improves the quality of teaching.
(d) None of the above.
If you answered (d), you share the view of increasing numbers of educators and parents who have become deeply disillusioned with the current accountability system and what it has done to teaching and learning in our classrooms. More and more teachers and parents see a school system that is mostly about preparing students to take tests, not preparing them for life.
Until the test-driven distortion of the classroom experience is corrected, Texas AFT foresees no meaningful difference between current performance ratings labels and the A-through-F labels proposed in SB 1408. These labels for schools are of more value to real-estate agents in their advertisements than to educators and students in the classroom or to the public at large.
What matters, of course, is not the label–“exemplary” or “A”; “recognized” or“B”; “acceptable” or “C”;“unacceptable” or “D” or “F.” What matters is whether the indicators behind the labels reflect the reality of what’s going on in our schools, which is not reducible to a one-word or one-letter-grade label.
Unless the criteria for the new ratings are different from the flawed basis for current ratings, the new ratings will be no improvement. You have little or no reason for confidence that current ratings, based primarily on students’ scores on snapshot state tests, capture a trustworthy picture of school performance.
There is a broad scholarly consensus on the need to reform our test-driven accountability system. That consensus is reflected well in a Texas Tribune commentary by Prof. Carolyn Heinrich of the University of Texas School of Public Affairs that appeared on March 26, just two days ago. Dr. Heinrich wrote:
“There is growing agreement that we can design a better test-based accountability system that maintains high standards, costs less, makes more effective use of testing data and reduces harmful, unintended consequences that have been documented nationally as well as in Texas. Research definitively shows that these negative effects —including excessive focus on test-taking skills; outright cheating and manipulation of the test-taking process; reduced student effort, withdrawal and lower self-expectations; dampened intrinsic motivation to learn; and lower graduation rates — are exacerbated when high stakes are attached to test scores and are most detrimental for the lower-performing schools and student subgroups at greatest risk.
“We have over-invested in testing (as if it was some kind of ‘magic bullet’) and under-invested in other tools for educational improvement. We need multidimensional measures of student achievement that recognize the many types and areas of learning linked to students’ educational and career success….And test scores will be more effective tools for addressing student learning deficits and promoting accountability if we focus on their use for diagnostic purposes….
“The reason that proponents of the current flawed system do not cite any credible research that supports a causallink between this type of aggressive, test-based accountability system and student improvement is that it does not exist. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University stated it well: ‘The notions of standards and accountability have become synonymous with mandates for student testing that are unconnected to policies addressing the quality of teaching, the allocation of resources, or the nature of schooling. Tests are asked to take on burdens of decision-making and of instructional improvement, which they are not designed to carry and are not capable of accomplishing.’”
Texas AFT urges you to heed this sound advice. Please focus less on selecting new shorthand ratings labels and more on the real substance of educational improvement, which is not captured by the prevailing reflexive reliance on scores on standardized tests as the be-all, end-all of education.