WACO, November 29 - Some of the most difficult challenges the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature will face involve education.
Funding is a multi-layered problem: how to get enough of it given tight budgets and how to distribute what we do have equitably. Higher education has its own set of issues to address. Another topic which is set to generate debate is testing in public schools.
Standardized testing in Texas began more than three decades ago with the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS), which was aimed at ensuring that all students were learning at least some basic skills in public schools. Since that time, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS), Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), and Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS, which some students still take). Most recently, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) was implemented.
With every iteration, increasing the difficulty of the test and involving more higher-level thinking have been primary goals. In addition, the tests have grown to encompass more subjects and grade levels. Currently, every student in Texas schools is tested in key areas (math, reading, and writing), in part due to 2002 No Child Left Behind federal legislation.
Most people would agree that some level of testing is desirable to ensure all schools are meeting certain standards and that Texas keeps up with national norms. Given our mobile society, it’s also hard to argue with the idea that schools should follow the same basic curriculum to accommodate students who move. However, beyond this common ground lies a variety of opinions as to the proper role of testing and whether the path the state is on is the right one.
There are a host of issues and questions surrounding standardized testing. Paramount among these are the ability of the test to measure useful educational variables, the effect of the accountability system on what goes on in classrooms (such as “teaching to the test”), the potential problems of kids dropping out as they begin to fear they cannot pass and graduate, and the stress on youngsters (as well as parents, teachers, and administrators) associated with testing. On the other side of the issue are also valid arguments in favor of shooting for a higher standard with our testing and seeing that schools and students meet that standard (which, of course, requires increasing resources as growth and demographic shifts strain the system). All of these things are and will continue to be the subject of intense debate.
As an economist, the heart of the issue lies in ensuring that we are preparing our youth for future success as best we can given scarce resources. Preparing Texas’ workforce for the future is essential to ongoing prosperity, and proponents point to this fact as a basis for more difficult tests and more severe consequences if standards are not met.
The results of the first round of STAAR testing were released in June, and they paint a grim picture. While there is a phased in ramping up of what is considered “passing,” if final passing standards had been in place, passing rates for last year’s freshmen would have been 41 percent in biology, 39 percent in Algebra I, 40 percent in world geography, 46 percent in reading, and only 34 percent in writing. The percentages of students achieving levels defined to mean “they are well prepared for the next course” were alarmingly small. For third through eighth graders taking the STAAR test, only about half could answer 70 percent of questions right. (No “passing” standard for younger grades has been released yet.)
It is difficult to believe that 60 percent of high school freshmen are that far behind in so many areas. Moreover, these dismal performance indicators are in sharp contrast to other measures such as the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, which indicates Texas is actually at or above national averages for math and reading at various grade levels. Without a doubt, schools will be pouring classroom time and budget dollars into figuring out how to get these passing rates up irrespective of whether the process enhances actual learning and development of cognitive skills).
There is also the question of the use of resources. Since 2000, the State has spent an estimated $1.2 billion for standardized testing. Payments to the British company which has developed the STAAR are expected to be $468 million during the 2010-2015 period. This amount is in addition to all of the additional costs to schools for full-time testing coordinators, additional staff on testing days, summer school, prep materials, and more.
It is impossible to ignore the backlash against the STAAR test. Parents are protesting, students are stressing, and community leaders are taking sides. Some 871 school districts (85 percent of the total number of districts representing 91 percent of all students) have adopted a resolution developed by the Texas Association of School Administrators which essentially states that while they do not oppose accountability in public schools, “the system of the past will not prepare our students to lead in the future and neither will the standardized tests that so dominate their instructional time and block our ability to make progress toward a world-class education system of student-centered schools and future-ready students.” Strong words.
In the abstract, having high expectations and pushing students, teachers, and schools to work hard to meet them is a good thing, particularly given adequate financial resources. Even so, it’s imperative to ensure that within this process the desired outcome (preparing youth for future success) is actually what is incentivized. It is a basic premise of economics of all political persuasions that if you create the wrong incentives, you will not like the results.
Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.