Thursday, September 29, 2005

Lowering the stakes, raising standards

UT Professor Angela Valenzuela linked to this article from the Austin Statesman. The point is simple: high-stakes tests disproportionately harm minority students. Testing is very important as a diagnostic tool but it must not be the only measure of success.

Can you imagine doing your job every day, working hard, meeting goals, and then to have your entire year's performance determined by a series of tests? And if you fail one, it's as if you failed them all?

It's an absurd system. You would naturally focus less on the tasks associated with your job and more on the tests. This is exactly what is happening in schools across America. And it's happening more in the schools accountability was supposed to benefit: namely, ones with large minority populations.

I usually don't agree with the editorial page of the Statesman so I was elated to see this article. Contrary to the tone I often take here, I really do prefer to be agreeable. The Statesman article was clearly articulated and logically sound. I reprint it here in its entirety:

For several years, state Rep. Dora Olivo, D-Missouri City, has been fighting to de-emphasize the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in promoting and graduating Texas students. Her bills to do that have met with fierce resistance from lawmakers who swear by high-stakes testing as a means of improving student performance. De-emphasizing the test, they argue, would weaken standards.

But a new study shows high-stakes testing programs in Texas and elsewhere might do as much harm as good. It might finally dispel those mistaken notions and give the bills the momentum they need.

When the Legislature meets in 2007, it should pass Olivo's measures, House Bills 1612 and 1613. The legislation would leave intact the best of Texas' testing system and fix what isn't working. The measures would permit schools to use multiple criteria, including grades, teacher evaluations and TAKS scores, to determine promotion and graduation. As it stands, seniors are denied diplomas if they don't pass the exit TAKS, regardless of their grades.

It's worth repeating that state skills exams are a good way to measure what students are learning and diagnose academic weaknesses. But Texas has used the test inappropriately to determine student promotion, retention and graduation. Because schools place so much emphasis on the TAKS, teachers long have complained that they are devoting too much time to teaching the test and not enough time helping students learn how to think critically.

The study, released earlier this month by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory, examined the effect of high-stakes testing in Texas and 24 other states. It found "no convincing evidence" that punitive measures aimed at pressuring schools and students to improve scores produced better student achievement than would otherwise have been expected. But it did find that high-stakes testing was having a negative effect on many minority students. The study found that states with greater numbers of minority students are using testing systems that exert greater pressure. Researchers think that increased testing pressure is related to larger numbers of students being held back or dropping out of school.

We've seen that happen in Texas public schools. This year, there were 21,198 seniors who did not pass the exit TAKS, so they didn't graduate. Those students completed other graduation requirements, but couldn't pass the skills exam.

Failure rates were highest among African Americans (15 percent didn't pass the exit TAKS) and Hispanics (14 percent). Five percent of white students flunked the exam.

For several years, we've been concerned about Texas' high-stakes testing program. This school year again, the exam will be used to determine whether third- and fifth-graders should be promoted and whether seniors should get their diplomas.

It is true that Texas' testing program has illuminated the gap in performance between white and minority students and between students from middle- and upper income families and those from low-income homes. That is good because it allows schools to focus their resources on the students who need it most. It also helps schools design more challenging curricula for higher performers who might otherwise be ignored.

It would be fine if the testing program stopped there. But Texas takes it a few steps too far. De-emphasizing the test would improve public schools.

Well done. For more information on state Representative Dora Olivo and the bills referenced in the editorial, click here.


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