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Bill of the Week: Down With Tests, Up With Standards?

Bipartisan starting point for school graduation reform
Richard Whittaker, 1:41pm, Sat. Jan. 26, 2013
When the 83rd Legislative Session started, Speaker Joe Straus said he knew there were 150 House votes for reforming the school graduation standards: He just didn't know what consensus reform looked like. Now Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, are offering him a first draft.

On Jan 24, the pair unveiled Senate Bill 240 and House Bill 640, creating what Van de Putte says will create "a dynamic college- and workforce-readiness accountability system." It starts by completely overhauling the dreaded STAAR tests, and, most pressingly for families, taking the emphasis off the end of course exams. To do this, they would make several radical changes:

– End the 15% rule, where a child's graduation is linked directly to their end-of-course test scores.
– Cut the number of end of course [EOC] tests from 15 to three
– Prevents end-of-course testing to be used in class rank and college admission
– Introduces alternatives like the SAT and ACT as testing alternatives, and,
– Eliminates the complex cumulative score calculation.

Significantly, it would yet again suspend school accountability ratings for another school year.

The issue, according to Van de Putte, is that while the state had the best intentions about rigor when they passed SB3, the STAAR system it birthed was a bad idea, poorly done, and at the wrong time. She said, "It was the implementation of transitioning from the TAKS test to STAAR, and the addition of EOCs, that really created a huge backlash from our parents, our students and our schools."

While she calls the implementation "very poorly planned and poorly executed," she did not blame the Texas Education Agency, which had lost $1.4 billion in state funding last year for vital programs like the Student Success Initiative, or the schools which lost $4 billion in formula funding. Families watched districts have to fire specialists, dump electives, and then introduce the EOCs, forcing students further down the path of 'drill and kill' testing. At the same time, the TEA had lost so many staff that it could do little to help districts, and Van de Putte theorized that could be one reason that Commissioner Robert Scott unexpectedly left the agency. The situation is so bad that even his replacement, former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, hand picked by Gov. Rick Perry, has told the legislature that he needs more full time employees to run the office. Van de Putte said, "Someone's got to stand up and tell the legislature, 'If you expect a state agency to do right by our students, our school districts and our parents, you've got to give them the resources to do it."

Combined, she said it all added up to "a set of variables that created an untenable situation."

Part of the issue is flexibility. STAAR's push for a one-size-fits-all gradation model has been an expensive flop. However, Van de Putte said she is still committed to school accountability, and that her proposal is "more real-world and more realistic." That may not sit well with Democrats who have seen high stakes testing go hand in hand with a punitive accountability system. Moreover, how does the state gauge the success rates of Texas' 1,200 school districts and charter schools if this devolved system means they are all working with different systems? For it to work, she said, "You've got to have multiple criteria for success." As long as districts adhere to the curriculum established in the Texas Education Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards, "then you really should not be afraid of the flexibility and the testing instruments that are used to measure how well you're teaching that curriculum."

For Van de Putte, it's not just about fixing a broken accountability and graduation system. It's about protecting the joy of learning. She argues that the modern economy requires education post-high school, whether it be a two or four year degree, professional training or certification. That's essential due to the accelerating development of tech: She said, "Five years ago, Twitter was a sound and 4G was a parking space at the mall." For kids to keep up with the change, they will have to graduate with at least some intellectual curiosity left and the current system does everything it can to beat that out of them. She said, "Employers have told us, you need creative problem skills in these students, you need critical thinking, and you need a mastery of computing, of whatever technology is at hand."

By folding SATs or ACT into the matrix, a kid can prove that they have the skills to pass, say, a literacy test without sitting through an irrelevant EOC. Van de Putte compared it to the experience of military veterans in her district: If a battlefield medic wants to study nursing, why test them on basic anatomy or setting up an IV line?

Van de Putte isn't drawing a line in the sand about the text of the bill, and admits that dumping 12 EOCs may be too much for some lawmakers. However, what she and Patrick is proposing will at minimum kickstart the debate, and possibly become a base around which support can coalesce. The bigger problem may be members of the business community like Texas Association of Business boss Bill Hammond who regularly rail against any attempts to reduce high stakes testing or add cash to schools. However, Van de Putte said she regularly meets with members of the business community that understand the need for change and investment. After all, if there's one takeaway from STAAR that everyone can agree on, it's that you can't rewrite the rules without paying for the changeover. She said, "If you're in a business and you're trying to go for the gold standard, you don't cut professional development, you don't cut product innovation and R&D, and you put money into your facilities, you put money into your bricks and mortar, and you put your money into your professional development and human capitol.


Check out all the latest from the 83rd legislative session at Legeland.

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