By Kate Alexander
Friday, March 06, 2009
The high-stakes standardized tests that have induced fear and dread among Texas students in recent years would lose some of their bite in an overhaul of the state's school accountability system unveiled Thursday.
Testing would still be used to measure student achievement in the system, proposed by the leaders of the education committees in the Legislature. And passing end-of-course exams would be required for graduation.
But standardized test scores in the lower grades would no longer determine whether a student moves to the next grade — or whether a school stays open.
"An accountability system shouldn't be a gotcha. We are not looking for ways to trip up schools," said House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. "We're looking for ways to drive student achievement and help schools get better."
Under the plan proposed by Eissler and Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, the key measure of student achievement will be "growth," or showing that students are progressing toward the grade-level standard, even if they are below it. That progress could be examined over a three-year period.
The "dirty little secret" of the current accountability system is that low-performing students are a liability for schools, said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a University of Texas education professor. But the promise of the growth model, he says, is that schools can be rewarded for helping students close the gap between where they are and where they need to be.
"The potential is there for low-performing high schools to sparkle," Vasquez Heilig said.
At the former Johnston High School in Austin, for example, student test scores improved dramatically last year after years of dismal results. But the progress was not enough to meet the state standards, and the school closed last year under the state's harshest accountability sanction. It is unclear whether Johnston could have stayed open if the growth model were in place at that time.
The reprieve might not be enough to save two other Austin schools Pearce Middle School in East Austin and Reagan High School in Northeast Austin that are facing possible closure because they have been repeatedly rated academically unacceptable under the current accountability system.
The new system, if approved by the Legislature, would not go into effect until 2011. The existing rules would stay in place until that time.
Teacher groups said Thursday that they were still poring over the lengthy bill, but they lamented the continued emphasis on testing.
"This bill does little to fix the key flaw in the current accountability system: the extreme emphasis placed on standardized test scores as the measure of progress for students and schools," Linda Bridges, president of the Texas office of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.
"Under this proposal our teachers and students would receive no relief from the severe loss of real instructional time caused by excessive practice testing, test preparation, and benchmark testing tied to the standardized state exams."
There will be plenty of opportunity to change the proposal. Alternative language was already being drafted Thursday for the filed bill.
Texas has been at the forefront of public school accountability since the early 1990s. Gov. George W. Bush used much of the state's system as a model for the federal No Child Left Behind Act he championed as president.
Thursday's proposed revamp of the state's accountability system does away with some of the hallmarks of the Bush-era education reform, including lifting restrictions on social promotion.
State law now requires children in the third, fifth and eighth grades to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to move on to the next grade, though that restriction can be, and has been, circumvented.
The new proposal drops the state rules and gives local school districts the discretion to develop rules and procedures for promoting students.
Sandy Kress, a pioneer of school accountability, said this new approach is not a repudiation of the past policies but an evolution.
"It is dealing with some of the issues that have arisen and making the accountability system work better, work smarter," said Kress, who helped shepherd No Child Left Behind and served on a committee that recommended the proposed changes.
"The accountability system may get tougher because of this," Kress said. "It may get more honest about whether students are on the path to reaching the real goal, not just passing a test."
That "real goal," the bill's authors say, is preparing Texas students either for college or a skilled job.
Today's system has created an "illusion of progress" by setting minimum passing standards that have no connection to what Texas graduates need to know to succeed in college or the work force, Shapiro said.
In the graduating class of 2007, 43 percent of graduates who followed at least the state's recommended high school program were not college-ready in one subject or more, according to a report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Shapiro and Eissler said the aim is to develop a less-rigid system that gives students more options and rewards schools for more things than test performance, such as high-quality programs for fine arts or career and technology education. The well-known school rankings, ranging from "exemplary" to "unacceptable," would be eliminated.
"A Texas high school diploma doesn't mean as much to employers as it did in years past," said Drew Scheberle of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The focus on college- and workplace-readiness in the proposal should better prepare Texas graduates for high-skilled jobs in the future and help Austin to recruit those jobs, Scheberle said.