When I first became a school superintendent (1992), I embraced the Texas emphasis on accountability – as expressed through newly developed standardized tests and other measures. I reasoned that I would rather be evaluated on hard, cold data with regard to student achievement – than on such fleeting vapors as popularity or politics. Thus, I set in motion various measurable goals that tracked student achievement each year – and took individual and collective pride in yearly advancements. That has been my mantra for 20 years.
Fast forward to 2012: The state of Texas has implemented so many standardized tests in grades 3-12 that every important learning not directly connected to the tests is over-shadowed, under-appreciated, and often set aside. Not only have the blizzard of new tests multiplied since the legislature met in 2011, but now include multiple versions of the tests for various special education populations.
In order to address the national publicity about isolated instances of cheating, there are now so many rules and regulations regarding the administration of the tests that the entire testing system is a monster eating away at what little time is left over for other things. Texas parents have recognized this one-eyed behemoth and are beginning to demand change.
Interestingly, those nations whose children score at the very highest on international benchmarks are less enamored with standardized testing. For example, the Finland educational system is now ranked as among the best in the world based on international benchmark scores. Yet they do not issue external assessments (standardized tests) until the high school leaving exam in grade 12. Instead, instruction in the earlier grades focuses on the development of creativity, problem solving, and on the fundamental skill of literacy. Class sizes are small and great emphasis is placed on teacher preparation and ongoing staff development. Teachers are trained on diagnosing learning difficulties and there is a strong focus on early intervention when kids are having difficulties. Teaching is considered a prestigious and honored profession. Oh and one other thing: Finnish students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning from an early age. (American parents – pay attention!)
As with all of the nations whose children lead the world in high school achievement, Finland spends less per student than in American schools.
It is one thing to complain; another to propose a solution. Here’s mine: Texas has appropriately begun placing a greater emphasis on college readiness. The SAT, ACT, AP, and THEA tests are all well established, already in place, and produce a high volume of useful information for determining the educational progress/success of our students. In addition, we can certainly incorporate widespread adoption of the international benchmark tests for high school science and math – hoping to re-establish the U.S. as among the best educational systems in the world. We should base much of our accountability on those tests – and much less on others.
At earlier grade levels, we can eliminate statewide exams and substitute locally developed benchmarks to measure progress. These benchmarks will be subject to local school leader decisions (i.e. teachers, administrators, elected board members), not state politics. Obviously those schools/districts who fail to produce good results at the elementary/middle school level will reap what they sow when the students are tested on the college prep indicators I’ve referred to above. Thus, accountability remains in place – and with power. Early grade levels can then focus more than they do now on creativity, problem solving, fine arts, and other ways of developing the multiple intelligences found in students.
At the April 10 Board meeting, we’re introducing a Board resolution aimed at convincing Texas legislators, when they meet again in January 2013, to put an end to the over-reliance on standardized testing. The state and local school districts can spend less on tests – and more time on greater things. More than 200 districts have already adopted this resolution. I invite parents across Texas to take up this banner – and wave it high in Austin!