By Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle
Updated 11:02 pm, Saturday, March 16, 2013
The state's former education chief, Robert Scott, joined in the protest, telling the crowd the testing program was “spinning out of control.”
Texas, a pioneer in testing and school accountability, has hit the tipping point after three decades of escalating pressure on students to pass standardized exams.
Lawmakers are weighing how much to scale back the tests, trying to balance pleas from parents and teachers with lessons learned from the days when Texas, like other states, didn't scrutinize whether its public schools were educating all students well.
“When something gets to this level of volume, as it has on testing, there's always that fear that we go back too far,” said David Anthony, former superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks schools. “There have been bills filed to put a moratorium on testing — we don't want to go back that far. There is a very appropriate middle ground as long as we focus on what is in the best interest of students.”
Texas requires most high school students to pass 15 tests to earn a diploma — more than any other state. The number of exams is at the heart of the controversy while the Legislature's unprecedented $5.4 billion cut to public education two years ago has fueled the backlash.
San Antonio superintendents have voiced concerns with the number of tests, which San Antonio ISD interim Superintendent Sylvester Perez has said could result in more high school dropouts.
They also complain that the new testing system has stripped control away from school boards and educators on how to weigh results in assessing students.
Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, who oversees the largest district in San Antonio and one of the largest in Texas, said he's “been encouraged” by the dialogue among education associations and lawmakers in trying to again reform the testing system. He also said all the changes and ensuing limbo has caused turmoil for educators scrambling to meet the new rigor.
The current testing system was approved by the Legislature six years ago. Educators lobbied for parts of it. But the new, tougher exams took so long to develop that students didn't take them for the first time until spring 2012.
“The implementation of it turned into a logistical and high-stakes nightmare,” said Holly Eaton, a director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. “When it actually happens is when people feel the impact. In the abstract, it sounds reasonable.”
The release of the test scores last June cemented concerns. Passing rates ranged from 87 percent on the biology exam to 55 percent on writing. Those results were based on relatively easy passing standards set to ratchet up over time.
Had the tougher levels — designed to show students were ready for college — been in place, up to two-thirds of students would have failed.
After two chances to retake the tests, about 122,000 students — or 35 percent of last year's ninth-graders — have yet to pass at least one exam, according to an outside analysis of state data.
During legislative testimony in 2007, Eaton was one of a few educators who raised questions about the proposed spike in testing from four high-stakes exams to a dozen.
The House tried to reduce the number back to four, but the Senate wouldn't sign off. A joint committee ultimately agreed to 12 — four per year in English, math, science and social studies. In reality, the number was 15 because the English exam was split into two parts: reading and writing.
Educators in 2007 generally applauded the change to end-of-course tests. The exams would be like finals, instead of general, cumulative tests given under the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
With TAKS, a junior taking pre-calculus had to pass the state math test that covered algebra he or she studied years ago. Teachers spent precious class time prepping students for the exams.
Lawmakers tried to lessen the stakes by enabling students to graduate if they got a passing average on the exams in each broad subject area, such as science. A student could do poorly on the biology test but make up for it on the chemistry exam.
In practice, the provision was complicated. Test scores came back late, school officials had loads of data to track and they were unsure when to encourage students to retake exams to try to boost their averages.
Before new tests rolled out, lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to address concerns from superintendents. In 2011, a bill passed in the House that would have eliminated the mandate that students' scores on the end-of-course exams count 15 percent in their final course grades.
The grading rule was imposed to encourage students to take the tests seriously, but the state never defined how to translate the scores into grades. Some districts planned to make it easier than others to earn an A, and parents feared their children's chances at getting into top colleges would suffer.
Former state Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands, said he's surprised that lawmakers now are so focused on lowering the number of tests. Prior talk, he said, focused on how many tests should count toward graduation. “If it's worth teaching, it's worth testing because how else are you going to know if it's being taught unless it's been learned?” said Eissler, who now lobbies for Pearson, which has a five-year, $468 million testing contract with the state.
Under TAKS, high school students took 12 exams but had to pass only four to graduate. A closely watched bill that passed the House Education Committee last week would reduce the mandatory tests to five.
“There's a real sense of awareness that we have gone too far,” Jim Nelson, the Texas education commissioner from 1999 to 2002, said at a recent forum on testing. “But we can't forget how this started. This started because this state was doing a terrible job of educating poor and minority children.”
Texas students first had to pass tests to earn a diploma in 1987. But the state didn't start officially holding schools accountable for student performance until six years later, when the Legislature mandated a rating system. Scores were broken down by students' race and income level. For the first time, parents could compare schools based on data.
Former Gov. George W. Bush used the state's accountability system as a model for the No Child Left Behind Act when he was president, mandating testing and annual student progress in schools nationwide.
The testing backlash appears to be especially loud in Texas, but other states soon could follow as they adopt tougher curriculum standards and tests, said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think-tank.
“Texas has always been a trendsetter when it comes to testing and accountability issues,” he said. “It could be that Texas is once again ahead of the curve.”
While political deadlock can derail any changes, Northside's Woods remains optimistic about smarter standardized testing reform coming soon.
“This debate has come to a point where there is enough bipartisan support to get something done to address these concerns,” Woods said. “I think we saw that before the Legislature met, but it's really ramped up in recent months.”
Express-News Staff Writer Francisco Vara-Orta contributed to this report.