The Standardized Testing Test

Amid disagreement about the role of testing, House members vote to temporarily loosen graduation requirements


Updated April 4, 2011.

Three days after the House voted to cut $8 billion in school district funding, the chamber passed a bill Wednesday to loosen graduation requirements in light of a new and soon-to-be implemented testing regime. Since there was almost unanimous approval, it might look like the House is in agreement when it comes to school accountability. But that was only half the story.

School districts had fought for the bill—House Bill 500—which was carried by Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. But amendments prompted heated discussions about just what role testing should play in school assessments. And the coalitions for and against were anything but predictable.

The measure centered around the new STAAR tests, the soon-to-be-implemented statewide school assessments set to replace the current TAKS tests. Eissler’s bill would give school districts an opportunity to cut students some slack while students adjust to the new testing system. If the districts so chose, for a transitional period, a student’s STARR test performance wouldn’t necessarily count toward their final grade in a course. Districts could set their own policy on just how much the assessments count for a student’s grade. The bill also allows districts to suspend a new graduation requirement that students maintain a cumulative passing rate on 12 exams in four subject areas. Instead students would only have to pass four exams total—English III and algebra, specifically as well as one in science and one in social studies.

Given the widespread support from members, the bill was always a shoe-in—but debate was anything but predictable. Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, caused a commotion when he offered an amendment to delay the STARR tests for two years and instead let districts choose their own assessments. The effort failed, but it would have been a radical move in a state that’s long been big on statewide testing regimes and lucrative testing contracts. “This is extraordinary times,” Phillips told his colleagues. That’s no understatement—along with the rest of his GOP colleagues, Phillips just voted to drastically cut education spending for the first time since 1949. The measure “just says we’re going to slow down,” Phillips said.

The response was bizarre. While the House ultimately tabled the effort, 51 members supported the amendment. Ultra-conservative Republicans like Reps. Phil King and Warren Chisum joined with progressive Democrats like Mike Villarreal and Jose Menendez. The supporting Rs loved local control, while the supporting Ds want to move away from high-stakes testing.

Meanwhile a measure from Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, sought to heighten the importance of testing. While test results currently have no bearing on how much money a district gets, Bonnen’s amendment would have made 35 percent of school funding contingent on student performance.  “Why do we continue to do testing ad nauseum, but yet how we fund our schools has no impact on [funding]?” Bonnen demanded to know. If testing is so vital, he said, shouldn’t it have monetary consequences? He withdrew the amendment after Eissler dismissed the effort as illogical. But Bonnen’s move showed just how skeptical some members are about the current testing system as it currently stands.

After all the kerfuffle over the amendments, Eissler’s bill to temporarily loosen graduation requirements passed easily—no big surprise, since more than 120 members had signed on as authors or co-authors. In spite of opposition from business groups and pro-testing “reformers, representatives clearly responded to pressure from school districts. Districts were scared that students would have trouble adjusting to the new STARR tests, and that would leave some qualified students unable to graduate.

But before the vote, one GOP member, Todd Smith of Bedford, said he was “morally obligated to sound a loud alarm” about the bill, which he argued was rolling back standards and accountability. In some ways, he was certainly right. The STAAR tests were part of major school-accountability legislation last session, also authored by Eissler. The legislation, known as HB 3, was meant to raise the standards for schools to give students more skills for college or the workforce. The STAAR tests were supposed to be a big part of the effort. They’re meant to be more rigorous, and at the high-school level, to serve as end-of-course exams by subject area. (The old TAKS are based on grade level.) But the first version of HB 3 to pass the House had a flexible approach to testing—and in fact, as is the case in HB 500, only alegebra and English III were required exams for graduation. The cumulative score piece, and much of the testing emphasis, came out of negotiations with the Senate.

School districts have been nervous about the new accountability system ever since—particuarly in the face of cuts. While plenty of educators think the STAAR may be a better test, students almost always initially underperform on standardized tests. As they get used to new formats and as teachers get used to teaching the new tests, the scores rise. In Texas, standardized tests count for a lot—so, with that in mind, the Legislature gave school districts a transitional time in HB 3, during which low student performance wouldn’t count against them.

While schools were cut some slack in the 2009 reform, though, students weren’t. As soon as the tests got implemented, students were expected to start meeting the standards. HB 3 required that students have a cumulative passing average on the various end-of-course exams in order to graduate. If they fail one, they have to do that much better on the others. And this new standard is going into effect just as districts grapple with the state’s budget cuts—another major concern for school districts. Eissler’s bill on Wednesday offered a safety net for students; they still have to pass the class but not as many new tests.

Still, Smith was vehemently opposed to the bill, and argued it lowered the state’s education standards. “We are raising the white flag before we even realize there’s a problem,” he argued.

But given the proposed drastic cuts to education, some might say the white flag is already halfway up the flag pole.

Correction: In an earlier version, I misspelled the STAAR acronym. It stands for State of Texas Assessments and Academic Readiness.