More to Education Than Test Preparation

Austin Interfaith asks AISD to de-emphasize standardized testing

Parents and members of Austin Interfaith showed up 
in force at Monday's AISD board meeting.
Parents and members of Austin Interfaith showed up in force at Monday's AISD board meeting. (Photo By John Anderson)

Jose Sandoval and his sister Guadalupe, in matching blue Zavala Mustangs T-shirts, had a simple reason for attending Monday night's meeting of the AISD board of trustees.

"We take too many hard tests," said Jose, who is 10.

Their father, Florentino Sandoval, had a more complex view of the matter. "We want the students to work to their best capabilities, but the way the district is handling the tests is just a little too much," he said.

The Sandoval family was among about 200 members of Austin Interfaith who attended the meeting to urge the district to revamp the way it prepares students for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests, used to rate schools under state and federal accountability systems. The group also urged AISD to support their efforts to develop a "subdistrict" that would use more than just the TAKS to assess student learning.

"We're not against testing. We're not against accountability. But we want to try to find a way to not spend all our time preparing for tests and analyzing benchmark data," said Stacy Smith, who teaches at Pickle Elementary.

According to many parents and teachers, preparing for multiple-choice TAKS tests has become the driving force in AISD schools, at the expense of more effective, holistic approaches to learning. In addition to TAKS, AISD requires students to take "benchmark" tests at the beginning, middle, and end of the year to assess their mastery of material covered throughout the year. At the worst-performing schools, students take practice mini-tests every Friday. And to make sure all the testing and analyzing is going smoothly, the district sends teams of curriculum specialists to tour schools on "learning walks," through which they offer additional instructional strategies for teaching the district's standardized curriculum.

According to the district, all the tests and curriculum tools are simply their way of helping teachers do their best. Learning walks are "a professional development tool whose purpose is to give feedback to the principal, and indirectly to the teachers, on the implementation of the principles of learning, which are the best practices for instruction," said Yolanda Rocha, AISD's associate superintendent for elementary schools.

But teachers at the Interfaith protest say the tools and tests smack of micromanagement, and drain the joy that is essential for effective teaching and learning. This fall, for example, teachers at Maplewood Elementary, which did poorly on its beginning-of-the-year benchmarks, were outraged by what some parents came to call the "curriculum police," who hovered in classrooms, and, some felt, judged the teaching. Their discontent mushroomed into a series of meetings with Rocha, which helped correct "miscommunications" about the role of the learning walks. Nevertheless, beyond the question of whether the district is trying to help or trying to micromanage is what Interfaith sees as the real issue: how the district can help the group develop and implement an alternative way to hold schools accountable so that an end-of-the-year test doesn't have to dominate every classroom, every day.

"We want to see the district get behind us on a pilot program that would lead the district and the state in showing that it doesn't have to be this way," said Trina Robertson, a parent at Maplewood. However, because the TAKS are mandated by the state, making such a program a reality will involve more than simple district approval. As such, their appearance on Monday was intended as a display of support for continued meetings with trustees and district representatives to help develop a final proposal. Other efforts in the legislature may help pave their way, however. Last week, Rep. Dora Olivo filed two "multiple assessment" bills, which would allow schools to augment the TAKS with factors such as grades and teacher assessments.

But not everyone agrees that standardized tests hurt schools – support is at least as strong on the conservative side for increasing the number of tests to which students are subject. The main public education bill in the legislature, HB 2, currently calls for more tests that would help the state rate schools as low-performing and move them into a pipeline for takeover by outside institutions, which could be private corporations.

The privatization factor makes the stakes in any "subdistrict" gamble particularly high. But to those who believe that a quality education can't be measured by a multiple-choice test, it's a gamble worth taking.

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standardized testingeducation, Austin Interfaith, Austin ISD, Dora Olivo, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, Florentino Sandoval, Stacy Smith, Yolanda Rocha, Trina Robertson, Maplewood Elementary, learning walks

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