Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 31 2012

#60: When business asks for “backsies”

The 2012-2013 is the second year of implementation for the STAAR end-of-course exams, previously complained-about on this site here.

For those of you who are not teaching in the once proud nation of Texas(1), you may not know about our testapalooza for our high schoolers, but here was the original plan in its inception:

  • All high schoolers planning to graduate on non-minimum graduation plans would need to pass six exams for English (I, II, III for Reading and Writing), and three exams  for Social Studies (World Geography, World History, US History), Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics), and Mathematics (Algebra I and II, Geometry).
  • Your EOC score was to account for 15% of your final average(2).
  • The passing standard was unknown.
  • Last year, TEA released 15 sample questions for each of the tests to be administered.
  • Students must pass all 15 of these tests to graduate.  Failure to do so means that students will take and re-take the failed tests until they have passed them, regardless of performance in the actual class(3).
Prior to the STAAR EOCs, Texas had used the TAKS tests for about a decade.  Key differences:
  • 9th graders took only Mathematics and Reading tests which were not graduation requirements.
  • 10th graders took English (Writing and Reading), Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science.  The tests could cover anything as far back as 8th grade or up to current-year standards.  These, too, were not required for student graduation.  However, the 10th grade results are used to measure Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and determine campus rankings as either Exemplary, Recognized, Academically Acceptable, or Academically Unacceptable.  This made for an annual stressfest in which teachers and administrators would try any number of motivators to get kids to care about this tests as much as we did and would also provide pull-out services during elective courses to capture the “bubble kids” who in previous years tested close to passing.
  • 11th grade was the exit level year.  Students would need to pass the usual four (English, Social Studies, Math, and Science) in order to graduate.  This year’s class of juniors is the last class to fall under this plan.
Parents, teachers, administrators, and Texans all over have been up in arms over STAAR and for good reason.  These tests are draconian in practice and wasteful of both time and taxes to boot.  So you might imagine my surprise to read this week that now, the once-champion of our current testing regime is now asking for backsies not even a year later.  Turns out they want to scale back the state of Texas’ testing frenzy just a teensy bit after it has become apparent that this current testing regime is uniformly awful.
This is one of those moments where the adage “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” is handy.
Folks, there are very good reasons we should not listen to the business community when it comes to improving schools.  First and foremost, it’s because these half-cocked dilettantes don’t have the first clue what they are talking about.  But secondly, they never have to be held accountable for their “suggestions.”  When they take a full-page ad out to influence lawmakers in Austin and spend years going to bat for a yearly testing blitz, all they have to do is issue a mea culpa when their ideas are revealed to be a disaster and everything is fine.  They are much more likely to take huge risks and gamble with the lives of children they’ll never see because they’ll never have to reckon for it.
Meanwhile, millions of kids and their parents and guardians have been tearing their scalps out over these tests.  And not just in “low-performing” schools like mine, but the suburban schools, too.  It took a lot of kvetching and political action at the grass-roots level to get the state to suspend the 15% of the GPA grade law.
As teachers, we have to deal with the consequences of the corporate reform movement in our classrooms.  We have to deal with our school’s and district’s preoccupation with nearly-worthless data and with improving test scores.  We want more than anything for all our kids to pass these darn things and get one step closer to graduation, something a lot of their family members did not get a chance to do.
And I’m at a crossroads now as a teacher.  I have a family at home to think about.  At the close of summer 2013, I’m done with my TFA commitment.  I have evolved from a new teacher who views standardized testing as a necessary evil to a still-sorta-green teacher who fails to see the necessity of them anymore.  What kind of political action against standardized testing can I participate in or take that won’t put my livelihood and the career of my dreams in jeopardy in an at-will state?  I’m getting pretty good at complaining(4) but I’d like to take the next logical step and do something about it.


(1) A fact our proud would-be secessionists will point out to you whenever they get the opportunity.  It’s true, Texas was a sovereign nation for 9 years, but we were basically in escrow to be annexed into the United States for the purpose of expanding slave territory.  EVERYTHING’S BIGGER IN TEXAS, Y’ALL.

(2) AKA the one that appears on your GPA; AKA the one that really counts.

(3) The exceptions to this now as it was with TAKS are students who receive modified instruction or have an alternate curriculum in accordance with their IEP.   The state of Texas says that only 2% of a district’s students may receive modifications and 1% receive an alternate curriculum.  Anything in excess of this would be counted automatically as failures for the district’s accountability ratings.  This does not stop many schools from placing an untoward number of students on modified plans so they can escape the rigors and requirements of the regular tests.  And thus another poison pill is slipped into the educational system as teachers, parents, and administrators scramble to make the right choice on behalf of the child due to our undying fealty to the Standardized Crown.

(4) I prefer “articulating my grievances.”

3 Responses

  1. I can just imagine all the instructional time this testing regime would eat up, what with the pre-tests, the test prep, the test review…not to mention all possible planning time for teachers turned into data analysis, data reflection, and data massaging sessions.

    My district has been slowly increasing the number of required assessments – all of which are basically STAR pretests – in testing grades. A lot of time seems to go into color-coding that data, which apparently has some kind of near-mystical impact on teacher planning.

    In two years, Kindergarten will get to join in on the fun when they start taking computer-based end of year tests. Many reformers think this will provide useful data. I’m already dreading trying to teach my students how to use a mouse without a working computer.

    • mches

      Oh my word, are you secretly at my school? We have “WAR Rooms” for math/science and social studies/English data. We are expected to color-code student labels by hand according to previous STAAR results (and subsequent benchmarking as well). Each student has a little label affixed to a magnet that goes on a giant board and we rank each student top to bottom in each class. What we are to accomplish with this is beyond me considering how uncritically this data is examined.

      By equal measures of passive-aggressive defiance and having no time, I have not completed this task.

  2. Educator


    You are already doing a lot by blogging about your experience. To further your point: NCLB was created with major bipartisan support. Spellings was instrumental in NCLB, but to my knowledge she had no education experience other than working on education reform in political positions (i.e. no teaching, no school administration, no curriculum development, no childhood development, etc…)

    So I like TFA in that they see that education and politics are intertwined, and I like how they see that having politicians in power who have education experience is a good thing. What worries me is basically everything that Gary Rubinstein has blogged about in his letters to reformers. I’m starting to see how these Ed reform leaders seem to be promoting policies that are actually hurting students. And I’m starting to wonder whether they’re basing these policies on their limited (but better than 0 like Spellings) two years of teaching in predominantly no excuses charter schools that are now starting to get analyzed more carefully (ex: 40% dropout rates or more at some of these miracle schools). In other words, they didn’t face cold hard facts about what they were able and not able to do.

    Since you’re at an at will state, I’m not sure what you can do now in your immediate future. But, I’m guessing you’ll be in a position of power one day. Maybe you could be a future critic of the various reforms being pushed? This education reform bubble needs to burst. The sooner the better. I think this will come as more folks like you, Gary, and other TFA type folks start asking the questions publicly. I think it’ll turn heads once the reformers start questioning the reforms. Right now, politicians just dismiss the loudest voices like Ravitch as status quo, even though I believe she has some very valid points. But to have a TFA lifer like Gary ask really good questions, and publicly? That causes discomfort to the no excuses ed reformers. This needs to happen in order for things to progress.

    So your blog and Gary’s and others needs to go viral! And the TFA community….the future leaders….need to hear these perspectives just as much as they hear Others.

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