Since Texas embarked on its journey of high-stakes testing decades ago, we’ve relied on an imperfect vehicle to get us down the road. Everyone agrees the test is broken—academics measure it, lawmakers complain about the noises it makes, and everyone tries to jiggle the ignition or bang on the hood till something gets better. Every decade or so, we trade in the old test for another and start all over again.
A few days ago, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced he would have to delay a plan to raise the passing score on the state’s standardized tests—the latest layer of duct tape on the bumper.
Texas’ test numbers are always based on a little mathematic sleight-of-hand because every year, a team of state regulators decides how many correct answers on a given test are enough for a passing grade. By setting the bar higher or lower, you can affect the number of students who pass the test. There is a science to this process, and sometimes the science gets thrown out the window.
When the new STAAR test was first unveiled, the plan was that to keep the passing level—or cut score—low at first, then raise it slowly over a number of years. To pass Algebra I, for instance, students had to answer just 37 percent of the questions correctly. But scores on the new STAAR test haven’t risen as fast as the state expected, so according to Williams’ new plan the cut scores will stay put for another year. After that, they’ll rise more slowly than originally planned.
A few days after that announcement, Williams sat before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, trying to explain why the pass rate didn’t rise fast enough. What followed was a good reminder of why legislating around test scores is such a bad idea, and why we’re probably doomed to repeat it again next year.
Williams offered a few explanations for the stagnating scores. (Over three years, the passing rates on some tests have risen slightly, while others have fallen.) For one thing, he said, STAAR is harder than TAKS, the test it replaced. Texas also has more students with limited English and more students in poverty. And in a set of remarks that will probably dog him for a while, Williams even blamed the teachers: “We haven’t raised the level of instruction significantly enough to meet and match the level of rigor that is required in order to satisfy the passing rate,” he said. “I’m just simply saying that we haven’t jumped high enough in the classroom.”
But Friendswood Republican Sen. Larry Taylor wondered if the students weren’t just being asked to jump too high: “My concern is that the STAAR test is too rigorous compared to what our students’ capabilities are.” Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger wondered if scores were flat because the tests don’t cover the right material.
Leticia Van de Putte took the idea further: “Are we actually measuring what’s relevant? How do parents know … our accountability system is valid?” she wondered. This test, she said, “destroys their creativity, [it] does not allow them to show their whole potential … and it’s not working ’cause you haven’t been able to raise those cut scores.”
But Williams said the quality of the test wasn’t an issue, citing “70 separate validity studies” on STAAR.
After everyone else took a turn grilling Williams on why the pass rate was so low, committee Chair Dan Patrick turned the question completely around. He wanted to know why the passing cutoff for Algebra I is still just 37 percent—well below what’s normally considered good enough for a “C” in class. “Why is the score for the test half of what we expect in the classroom?” he asked.
To recap: This test is too easy to pass, and not enough students are passing it, maybe because the test is too hard.
Presented with little improvement in tests scores, the lawmakers triangulated their way to a different explanation, everyone claimed to have the inside scoop on what’s really happening in classrooms, and once again we seem headed for a legislative session in which lawmakers can’t resist the urge to fix public education by just sort of poking at schools with a stick.
One year after the Legislature cut the number of high school exit tests from 15 to five, a few senators seemed to have an appetite for more changes next year. The contract for STAAR—famously awarded to Pearson for $468 million—is up again for bidding next year, and senators sounded very interested in changing the terms of the deal.
There are so many variables that could explain what’s behind student test scores, it’s very hard to know what they really mean. Williams hinted yesterday at those challenges, but ultimately seemed to settle on the idea that students simply aren’t learning enough. Senators seemed sure the problem was with the test or with Williams.
Van de Putte offered one way out. Sitting just a few seats from Patrick, her rival in the lite guv race, she repeated an idea she recently unveiled in her campaign: to uncouple the test from students’ graduation requirements and rate schools on just a sample of student tests. She wants, according to her own graphic imagery, to “remove the high stakes from the backs of our children.”
Faced with another year of dissatisfaction over test scores, and thousands of students who may not graduate because their test score didn’t rise to meet the state’s bar, and widespread mistrust of a system that always seems to be raising and lowering that bar, she suggested it’s time for a more fundamental change.
“Why,” she asked, “are we still embedded in something that is giving our parents and our students and our educators real pause about trusting this accountability system?”