Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
The best way to improve public education in Texas? Cut the number of standardized tests students have to take, according to a February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. That answer came in ahead of increased funding, vouchers, higher pay for teachers, incentives for prospective teachers, grading of schools, expanded pre-k, more charter schools and more online learning.
Texans really, really hate those tests. They are also deeply unhappy with the state’s school finance system — particularly the (majority) part of it that’s funded by property taxes.
It’s easy to go in circles on education, hoping for better information about how the students and schools are doing while at the same time deploring the pressure of the tests that — in an ideal situation — would be providing just that information.
In an “ask me anything” session conducted by the Tribune on Facebook this week, the conversation turned to testing — and quickly revealed some of the anger and frustration surrounding the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam. That echoed Kaitlin Barnes, a fifth-grade teacher from Houston who started off a column in TribTalk a week ago by saying the test should’ve been blocked under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment; that’s the one that bars cruel and unusual punishment.
It’s a good week for the flare-up: Kids across the state are taking the tests, with another round (for a different set of students) coming up next month.
Intentionally or not, Texas legislators piled on the political messages for this time of year, scheduling those tests in the same part of the calendar when home and other property owners are getting their annual assessment notices.
As this sample shows, the test is hard. Many detractors, like Barnes, acknowledge the intent even while they’re hating on STAAR.
It makes sense to test students, to see how they’re coming along. And it makes sense for the state to test students and schools, to see if the money spent on public education is actually resulting in a more educated public. It’s hard to tell if a “B” grade in El Paso is the same as a “B” in Tyler — whether the schools in every part of the state are educating kids. That’s the reason for giving the same test everywhere — to get comparable grades.
It also turns out to be one of the best ways to start an argument, whether the test in question is STAAR or one of its predecessors. Teachers regularly complain that the content of the tests doesn’t properly match up with what they’re teaching — that they end up teaching kids what will be on the state’s tests instead of what they would be teaching them otherwise. Angry parents have gone to court to try to stop STAAR.
The accountability attached directly and indirectly to the tests, sometimes for perfectly understandable reasons, produces unreasonable pressures that trickle down from the state to school districts, to principals, to teachers and to students. From students to parents, who are sometimes also known as voters, who talk to their school boards and legislators.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
The cycle is reflected in legislative (and gubernatorial) efforts to limit increases in local property taxes and to make changes to the property appraisal system. That’s just a herd of elected officials trying to make angry constituents happy, i.e., doing what they’re supposed to be doing in a representative democracy.
And it’s reflected in legislative efforts to trim the frequency and the pain of statewide tests, efforts that are tempered by a fear that testing is the only way for the state to know whether the schools around the state — imagine the best one, and also the worst one — are educating Texas kids.
The other side of the coin — accountability — was also evident as the kids were sweating through their exams this week. National test results show Texas and the nation stagnating in academic achievement. The state is still failing when it comes to bringing scores for Hispanic and black students in line with those for white students.
Education policymakers are working on it, promising improvement.
They know that Texans, for all the justified groaning about tests, still want to see the results.
Note: This story was inspired by a discussion on education policy happening now in our Facebook group, This is Your Texas. Sign up here to join the conversation.