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William McKenzie: Doing away with testing would hurt Texas children

Bush Institute
October 21, 2014

You don’t have to stand long on the playground before hearing parents complain about standardized tests. My own daughter is right there with them, telling me how much she hated them. And political leaders line up across party lines to lament annual independent exams.

The fury against them prompted the 2013 Texas Legislature to reduce from 15 to five the number of end-of-course exams that high school students must take. Legislators also made an aborted run at reducing state exams in grades three through eight, which are the cornerstone of Texas’ school accountability system. Lawmakers are likely to make another run next year.

Let me offer several reasons why doing away with tests in those grades would be bad for Texas students, educators and parents.

First, let’s understand what these exams are. They are objective assessments given across the state so that Texas can measure how well students grasp content in core subjects. These tests provide a cross-check on whether the district’s perceptions and assessments of student performance are correct. Without them, districts could hide their shortcomings, which often are acute for poor and minority students.

Second, the results provide a regular flow of information for schools to use in intervening with students. If data from Texas’ achievement test, the STAAR exam, shows that a school’s fifth-graders are seriously behind in math, the campus can tailor strategies to lift them up.

Third, the information shows principals and teachers where students start to fall behind. Without annual state tests measuring knowledge of Texas’ academic standards, it is hard to know where students began to lag.

Fourth, such measures show schools where progress is being made in mastering the knowledge that a child should know at a particular grade. The information can guide schools in building upon that success. It also shows them — and parents — which teachers add value to their classrooms.

Interestingly, you do not hear many civil rights leaders calling for dismantling the backbone of the state’s accountability system. The accountability movement’s roots go back to the civil rights era. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary School Act gave birth to the idea that schools must be held responsible for providing a decent education for all students. It’s hard to do that without testing.

Perhaps that’s why you hear leaders such as Delia Pompa, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, defending annual, independent exams in grades three through eight. “Annual tests are very important for us and any group historically not served well in schools,” the Texan explained over the phone last week. “Without them, children who are below grade level can fall even further behind. If you wait and test less, you lose a lot of time.”

Of course, there are ways to improve any system. Let me suggest one.

School districts should be more strategic in using “benchmark” exams. Districts administer their own tests repeatedly to see if students are meeting the standards of their district or state. They add to the testing regime and, I think, the backlash. The Center for American Progress found that districts can give as many as three tests for every one state test.

So let’s rethink benchmarks. The Houston school district, for example, stopped requiring them for high-performing campuses. That’s smart: You show results, you can have less testing.

But getting rid of annual state tests in grades three through eight isn’t a smart approach. In fact, National Assessment of Educational Progress data shows that students, especially minority students, started improving in reading and math at the same time that states started administering annual tests and applying consequences over the results.

There is value to annual, independent exams, although testing is only a means, not an end. The end is seeing student achievement improve. We do away with the means, we’ll have a hard time reaching the end.

William McKenzie is editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute. He can be reached [email protected].