A Sensible Approach to Decrease the Hours Our Public Schools Spend on Testing
By Scott Hochberg
Our public schools are spending too much time on testing. It's not just the yearly state-mandated STAAR tests, but all the benchmark testing and practice testing that districts have added to prepare students for those tests.
In Austin, simply questioning the value of all of this testing gets you labeled as "anti- accountability." So let me be clear. I recognize and support the value of standardized testing in making sure all schools are teaching the curriculum and assuring that every student receives the benefit of that teaching. But I don’t agree that everything we are currently doing in the name of accountability has enough value to justify the class time and dollars spent. There must be a sensible middle ground between over-testing and no accountability.
I believe we can reduce testing for most students while actually improving educational accountability. That’s why I filed House Bill 233 in the last legislative session. My bill would let elementary and middle school students “test out” of taking subsequent STARR tests in a particular subject by doing well on the test in third or fifth grade. This would greatly reduce testing for most students, which in turn would reduce the amount of valuable class time spent on benchmarking and other test-preparation exercises.
Here's how my plan would work. All students would be tested in reading and math in third grade, just like they are now. Those students who pass with a comfortable margin in either subject would get to skip the test in that subject in fourth grade. Those who do not pass the test in third grade, or who barely pass, would be tested in that subject again in fourth grade to make sure that the school is doing its job in bringing those kids up to grade level. In fifth grade, we'd again test all students in all testing subjects, but then in sixth, and again in seventh, only test those who do not pass or barely pass in the previous year.
This makes sense, because from years of testing and collecting data, we know that a student who scores well on the third-grade reading test, for example, will pass the fourth-grade reading test more than 95% of the time. So before we even give the fourth-grade test, we can predict very reliably that a large group of the students will pass, and we know which students they are just by looking at their previous year’s scores.
Since that's the case, why spend so much valuable class time “preparing” those students for a test on which we already know they will do well? Similar comparisons hold true for all other subjects and grades, and are consistent regardless of the school or teacher.
My plan would have a lot less testing, but it would actually bring greater accountability. In the system today, many low-scoring students stay under the radar as long as there are enough higher-performing students to keep their schools' ratings up. These low-scoring students are the ones most likely to tune out school, become discipline problems and ultimately drop out. Under my plan, school ratings for the fourth, sixth and seventh grades would be based on the gains in scores of only those students who scored low in the previous year. There would be no place for any low-performing student to be hidden in the numbers.
Supporters of more and more testing argue that we must test all students in each grade to measure the performance of each teacher. My bill leaves that question to local choice, allowing districts to opt in additional high performing students if they choose, with the state continuing to pay for the tests. But, since almost all high-performing students pass TAKS, and presumably will pass STARR, easily each year, the test really doesn’t really tell us much about an individual teacher’s value for those kids. Besides, isn’t the true value of a fourth grade teacher how well her students perform in fifth grade, not how well she prepares them for a one-day test taken weeks before the end of fourth grade?
Texas has fundamentally followed the same testing process in k-8 for 20 years, despite changing the name of the test from TAAS to TAKS to STARR. It’s time we used what all that testing has taught us, relieve our classrooms of the constant preparation for tests, and focus our testing on those students who need extra help and evaluation.
A proposal like HB 233 will take us a long way in that direction.
State Representative Scott Hochberg (D-Houston) serves as vice-chair of the House Committee on Public Education. He is retiring from the Legislature in January after representing his district in southwest Houston for the past twenty years.