Sunday, March 30, 2008

Accountability Panel Hears Teacher Views on Needed Changes in Test-Based System

(copyright 2008 Texas AFT)

Teachers testifying before the Joint Select Committee on Public School Accountability in Austin today strongly criticized aspects of the current test-driven accountability system. They were joined in that critique by other educators and, we are happy to report, by some committee members themselves.

While crediting the accountability system with steering more instructional resources toward students who need help to pass the state exams, the teacher witnesses urged the committee to help put the state's standardized test back in its proper place. With administrators and schools being judged primarily on the basis of standardized-test results, the consequence is that students and their teachers are forced to spend too much precious time on test-taking skills, squelching opportunities for students to explore their subjects more deeply, the teachers said.

Among the teachers invited to testify was master teacher Robin Turner, a Texas AFT member whose third-grade class of struggling students in Austin ISD benefits from her expertise as a Milken Foundation prizewinner and a National Board certified reading teacher. Turner, a member of our Education Austin affiliate, vividly described the letdown her students felt recently when they were forced to turn from a science lesson that had them deeply engaged to yet another tedious drill in TAKS skills. Turner also spoke out on behalf of colleagues who asked her to describe their testing calendars, showing inordinate amounts of time spent on test prep and on a multitude of standardized tests in addition to the TAKS.

Turner welcomed the committee's talk of moving toward a "growth model" that would reward students and their schools for achieving substantial gains. Right now the accountability system revolves almost entirely around getting a certain percentage of students to achieve a level of minimum proficiency, instead of rewarding and recognizing significant student gains, whether above or below that level. The status quo thus creates a strong incentive to neglect students other than those who are "on the bubble," just shy of meeting the minimum proficiency standard.

Other teachers echoed some of Turner's key points. Susan Creighton, a Texas AFT member who teaches gifted high-school students in English language arts in Flower Mound ISD, decried "the complete waste of my time" and students' time on TAKS essay-writing drills, mandated by her district despite the advanced level of her students. The narrow test-taking skills on which she and her students are required to spend days of preparation are just not relevant to the college-level writing and reasoning that it is her job to help them develop, Creighton said.

The teacher witnesses also repeatedly distinguished the beneficial use of standardized tests to identify deficiencies from the destructive use of tests to label students and punish schools as failures based on a narrow, one-day snapshot of their performance. On this point they were on common ground with panels of superintendents, principals, and educational experts who testified earlier in the day.

The emphasis ought to be on supports, not sanctions, said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, Inc., a national education-reform group that pushes for higher academic standards. This position was powerfully reinforced by testimony from Texas school administrators, who talked about the harm done by slapping an "academically unacceptable" label on a school because of a shortfall on one out of 36 performance indicators. Instead of this "gotcha" system, one principal suggested, why not give parents and taxpayers a truer picture of the school's overall performance with a rating that looks more like a grade-point average, reflecting performance across the full range of subjects and subgroups?

Superintendents and principals also noted that the punitive approach inevitably tends to deter good educators from going to work on struggling campuses, because their professional reputation can be damaged even if they work wonders but their students still after a year or two fall short of the required passing rates on standardized tests. One member of the select committee, herself a principal, bore personal witness to this problem. She said she had been assigned to a struggling campus because of her successful track record with disadvantaged students, then found herself yanked away to another campus after two years, under the state law passed in 2006 that mandates a principal's removal if her campus is rated low-performing for two years in a row.

Even the select committee's most dogged defender of the current system, lawyer-lobbyist Sandy Kress, felt compelled by the end of today's hearing to speak in support of corrective action to curb the excesses of testing drill and practice, which he termed a "problem with school or district implementation." Other committee members of the select committee signaled their interest in going much further to reform the system.

Rep. Diane Patrick, Republican of Arlington, for example, said the legislature has made some progress by moving toward end-of-course tests in high school but has more work to do in order to reduce the harmful effects of the TAKS testing regime at the elementary level. Committee co-chairs Florence Shapiro, a Republican senator from Plano, and Rob Eissler, a Republican representative from The Woodlands, also acknowledged the need to clear up confusion created by sometimes conflicting federal and state accountability ratings.

We'll have more gleanings from today's hearing to share with you in the future. It is still too early to tell if the select committee's eventual recommendations will reflect fully the powerful testimony heard today. But we continue to be encouraged by the tone of this discussion, in which most members of the committee seem to agree that there is something seriously awry with the current system and that it is their job to help fix it.

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