Monday, January 31, 2005

Picking Tests to Drop Won't Be Easy for HISD

Jan. 31, 2005, 4:57PM

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Houston ISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra's promise last week of a new culture that values teaching over testing has made him the darling of those who think the school district's test-heavy accountability system has gone too far.

"These are the best proposals I have seen during my 23 years in HISD. I strongly applaud and support you," Westbury High School teacher Faye Volcy wrote Saavedra via e-mail with "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" in the subject line.

Although some saw the move as a retreat from the test-based reforms that landed former Houston Independent School District Superintendent Rod Paige a job as U.S. education secretary, Saavedra is emphatic that Paige's core values still drive HISD philosophy.

"We're not retreating," Saavedra said. "The issue with the testing is that after 10 years, we need to examine whether testing has grown to where it needs to be cut back."

Still, following through on his plan to give those No. 2 pencils a break could be a tough task for the first-year superintendent.

Most of the 22 standardized tests used by HISD would be difficult to discard. Some, such as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, are state-mandated. Others measure college-readiness, such as the PSAT, or identify gifted students, such as the Naglieri.

That leaves few options for a newly formed committee of teachers, principals and administrators as they try to come up with recommendations for Saavedra.

Already, Saavedra has his eye on two tests as candidates for a major overhaul — the so-called "snapshot" practice tests that gauge how prepared students are before they take the real TAKS and the Stanford Achievement Test.

Use of several exams urged
Yet some educators say even those tests, particularly the Stanford, are vital to pinpointing weaknesses in students' education.

The best way to keep teachers from teaching to the test, they say, is to use several tests to measure learning.

The Stanford, given in grades 1 to 11, is the only test that compares HISD students with their peers nationally. Though committed to keeping the Stanford, Saavedra said he may scale back its role in HISD.

"The question is, do we need to be giving it at every grade level," he said.

It wasn't long ago that HISD viewed the Stanford, which costs nearly $1.9 million to administer, as key to proving Houston students really were learning.

The exam, produced by San Antonio-based Harcourt Assessment Inc., came to Houston in 1996, when lagging public confidence in the school system resulted in voters' rejection that year of HISD's $390 million bond package.

"The whole purpose behind the use of the (Stanford) test was to convince the public and the business community and the other stakeholders that schools were performing well enough to meet national standards," said Gary Dworkin, who runs the University of Houston's Sociology of Education Research Group.

Expert affirms need
Don McAdams served on the school board that authorized Paige's testing proposal in 1996. He still considers it one of HISD's smartest steps toward silencing critics who questioned the validity of students' high passing rates on the old Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

"That's exactly why HISD developed an accountability system that used the TAAS and the Stanford," said McAdams, now a nationally recognized education consultant. "If you are testing in various ways, it prevents teaching to the test."

McAdams agrees it's time for a re-evaluation of the tests taken by Houston's 209,000 students

"But I would not want to see the public fall into the trap of thinking that teaching and testing are somehow opposed to each other," he said.

If decision-makers in Houston and elsewhere are concerned with freeing up more instructional time, "The place to start is movies, field trips and other activities that aren't involved in supporting the curriculum and the learning process."

Some wonder about the motivation for getting rid of a test that has served as ammunition for skeptics of the No Child Left Behind Act that Paige championed in Washington, D.C.

Those critics often point out that the education reforms that led to HISD's big gains on the old TAAS didn't yield the same results on the Stanford.

Usefulness is questioned
"We would like them to keep Stanford administered on all grade levels," said Lester Houston, executive director of the Houston-based Parent Leadership Union of Texas, which has 4,000 dues-paying members in the Houston area.

"If you eliminate it in early grades, you put kids in a deficit situation," Houston said. "School districts allow the learning gaps to increase so dramatically, it's almost impossible to close those gaps once kids get into high school."

Others, though, question the Stanford test's usefulness since its questions don't reflect Texas' curriculum the way TAKS questions do.

"Testing is just a way to get information about students' learning, and we have far too much testing going on," said Thomas Haladyna, an Arizona State University professor specializing in standardized test research. "When it comes down to which tests are most useful, that would be the TAKS. The Stanford would be the least useful because it's not aligned with Texas' standards."

Texas, Haladyna said, would do well to follow the lead of Arizona and other states that have embedded Stanford questions in their state accountability test. "We're cutting down on testing time and increasing teaching time," he said.

Practice TAKS sessions
It could be the Stanford has outlived its usefulness for Houston schools, said Dworkin, the UH researcher. School ratings in both the state and federal systems are based on TAKS performance, he said.

"As we move toward No Child Left Behind, TAKS becomes the measuring stick for Texas, and it may be feasible to drop some of the norm-referenced testing — Stanford is one — especially as TAKS becomes more rigorous," he said.

Although opinions vary on the Stanford exams, there's less debate on snapshot TAKS tests.

HISD requires that students in grades 3 to 11 take three or four TAKS snapshot tests a year. Saavedra said he is considering letting teachers decide for themselves whether and how often to give those tests.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the union has been pushing for less snapshot testing for years.

"Some of our schools have gone absolutely over the edge on benchmark testing," she said. "We have schools where kids are taking the prep test for the TAKS over and over and over, sometimes as frequently as once a month."

'Drill and kill' method
Sandy Kress, an Austin attorney who was a top education adviser to George W. Bush as Texas governor and in the early years of his presidency, agreed some schools go overboard with such testing.

"That's an area where test-makers and test-givers probably need to be a little more artful," said Kress, now a lobbyist. "If short assessments are used on a timely basis during the year to see that the curriculum is being learned, that can be a very helpful tool for everyone involved."

Often, Fallon said, principals ask teachers to use the snapshot results to identify test-taking weaknesses and use a "drill and kill" method that focuses on narrow concepts instead of the broad curriculum.

"If you teach the curriculum," she said, "they should do all right on the test."

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