School officials say state testing too much

There’s too much testing. That’s the cry of superintendents across the state as they ask the Texas Legislature to re-evaluate the system. But the issue is much more complicated than just that simple statement. It’s about flexibility, local control and creating a student-focused system.

“We’re doing a lot of things well, and we’ve improved education in the state. But we’ve gone way too far with this high-stakes testing,” said Denison Superintendent Henry Scott. “That’s the thing that’s strangling us and that’s the thing that’s dictating, in most of our classrooms across the state, the type of instruction we have. We’ve got to have a certain amount of testing. We’ve got to show our students are learning, but you don’t have to test every grade every year to show that.”

Denison Assistant Director of Instruction Shonda Cannon said the district will spend three weeks this year administering the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), the latest generation of high-stakes tests in Texas. The student time spent taking the STAAR is in addition to district benchmarking and testing that’s a regular part of teachers’ classroom instruction. Students begin taking the high-stakes tests in third grade and continue yearly until at least their junior year, and in some cases their senior year.

On Tuesday, the Denison School Board passed a resolution urging the state “to reexamine the public school accountability system in Texas and to develop a system that truly measures student learning against rigorous standards that will prepare them for their global futures without undermining the fundamental principles of good teaching or destroying students’ innate love of learning.”

DISD was one of the first districts in the state to pass the resolution. Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Administrators, said in an email on Friday that three other districts had confirmed passing the resolution. Most districts, LaCoste-Caputo said, received a copy of the resolution on Thursday. “We’re anticipating many districts will put the resolution on their March agenda.”

The immediate spark of the resolution was statements Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott made recently calling for a better balance in testing and the ensuing backlash from Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond, who was quoted in Texas Weekly as saying the commissioner is a “cheerleader for mediocrity.”

The resolution is in support of Robert Scott’s stance “in his concern about the overemphasis on high stakes testing and in his continuing support of high standards and local accountability,” the resolution states. But it has deeper roots that go back to a document, “Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas,” developed over 21 months by a group of superintendents that calls for changes.

“I think what we’re saying is, let’s just be open to looking,” said Highland Park Superintendent Dawson Orr, who was a part of the group that developed the document. “We want an accountability system that would value kids’ scores on AP exams, ACT, SAT, college acceptance, that we think is just as important if not more important than the state giving end-of-course exams for 12 different high school courses.”

At Denison, what administrators seem to be looking for is a system that allows more local control over what is taught.

“What you would have to do is design a system that is student focused rather than school focused,” Cannon said, describing the changes she believes need to occur in the accountability system. “That system is strapping (students) where we couldn’t get them in a career-tech internship without having to drop them to the minimum plan, because we’re so strapped with the number of credits that they have to take and then only so many of those can be an elective course.”

For schools, too many students on the minimum graduation plan can negatively affect a school’s accountability rating.

Cannon emphasized that the district doesn’t want to discourage students from going to college, but it does want to prepare those who don’t plan to attend college to find a job.

Henry Scott said, under the current system students are “being pushed through a one-size-fits-all college-preparatory program.”

He, and other administrators, are quick to emphasize that no one is looking to eliminate testing completely. “We understand we’ve got to have testing,” Henry Scott said. “We understand we’ve got to have accountability, but we also think there could be some local accountability built in along with the state accountability.”

Administrators seem hopeful that Senate Bill 1557 will help start some of the change. Signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011, the bill allows for the creation of the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium, a group of 20 districts that will work with Robert Scott to develop a new accountability system that would enhance learning, provide local input and possibly decrease the amount of testing. Selection of the 20 districts is currently underway. Eventually the consortium will report back to the legislature.

Henry Scott said it’s going to take more than just educators complaining to the legislature.

“The only way the legislature is going to take notice and make any decisions to improve this system is for the general public to speak out,” he said. “As an educator, I’m looked at as having a self-interest and school boards are looked at that way. But when parents speak out … (legislators) will stop and listen.”

To try and jump-start what Henry Scott described as a grassroots effort, he sent out an email to teachers and business and community leaders to inform them of the challenges and encouraging them to voice their opinion. (The letter went out to more than 1,000 people on a district email list and is on page A5 of today’s edition of the Herald Democrat.)

“What I’m trying to do is start a conversation in our community about public education, and hopefully that will spread to other areas,” Henry Scott said. “We’re asking the public to get involved in this conversation. What do you want to see your schools be able to do?”