A Texas lawmaker recently introduced a bill that would overhaul public education in the Lone Star State. House Bill 5, proposed by House Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), marks massive changes to the existing education code, making sweeping changes to the state’s standardized test system and changing how public schools are rated.
Minimizing the number and weight of standardized tests
The proposal comes at a time when Texas high schoolers must take a whopping 15 STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) exams. Aycock’s bill would whittle that number down to five, including algebra I, biology, U.S. history, and reading and writing tests for English II. Satisfactory scores on AP and college-entrance exams would also be accepted to satisfy graduation requirements. The bill would also do away with the state’s “15% rule,” which derives 15% of a student’s grade from their STAAR scores.
The measure would also reduce the importance of standardized test scores in schools' ratings, creating instead a three-part evaluation based on academics, financial management, and community satisfaction.
Why these changes?
According to a Texas Observer article, roughly 100,000 high school students in Texas are not on track to graduate due to the current STAAR requirements. The Dallas Morning News also reported that 37% of ninth graders have been unable to pass one or more end-of-course exams, despite three testing opportunities. The evidence suggests that these tests are doing more harm than good, which is why Aycock, along with many other House members in the Texas Capitol, have set out to make some changes.
The fact that I happen to live deep in the heart of this big-skied state is only one of the reasons why this bit of legislation caught my attention. The other reason is that I think it raises some good questions about the weight given to testing versus course work and grades, not just in Texas but in schools across the country.
A report card for schools and teachers
In many states, the results of these standardized tests are used (in varying degrees) to evaluate the performance of public schools, and one has to wonder whether such exams should really be the singular litmus test used to determine the merit of a given school. Teachers themselves may also be judged by their students’ scores, which can detract from their roles as educators by forcing them to focus the lion’s share of their energy on simply meeting certain numbers. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize that there are many factors at play in a school’s success or failure or a teacher’s talent in the classroom, and allowing this capricious criterion to act as one of the most important determining factors (or as in some cases, the most important one) seems misguided.
An impetus for cheating
Placing such a high importance on standardized tests is also bound to promote cheating—and not just among high schoolers. Obviously, students feeling the pressure to pass a certain number of exams in order to graduate may feel compelled to cheat. But what about the teachers and schools whose performance will be judged based on their scores? Teachers could lose out on bonuses or may even fear losing their jobs, and low-performing schools risk losing much needed funding, so there’s just as much at stake for them as for their students.
Just last year, 23 schools in California were stripped of their Academic Performance Index (API) rankings when it was discovered that some of their teachers had cheated in order to help improve students’ test scores. According to The Huffington Post, examples of their misconduct included giving students test questions before the exam, using facial expressions to give hints about right or wrong answers, and even going so far as setting up math problems.
While there’s never an acceptable excuse for cheating, it’s obvious that some students and educators have become hyper-focused on merely achieving a specific score, which seems to undermine the very definition of “education”—especially in a country as innovative and forwarding-thinking as America purports to be.
All of that said, I don’t mean to imply that standardized testing has no place in secondary education. It can offer an objective assessment of a student’s learning, it allows students from different districts and even different states to be compared, and it demands a certain degree of accountability from teachers and schools. However, something about it reminds me of a line from Office Space: “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.”
In your humble blogger’s opinion, an American education should have fewer Scantrons and more group discussions, fewer blue books and more Russian novels, fewer analogies and hypotheticals and more telescopes and test tubes. Thankfully, it sounds like Texas is working toward that end, and if you’re worried your state isn’t, I hope you’ll press your lawmakers to follow suit.
What are your thoughts on standardized testing in your state, and how have your students been affected (or not affected) by it? Let us know in the comments!