As we gear up for the 83rd Texas Legislature to convene in January 2013, TCTA offers you this series of “Session Prep” articles that provide the facts on hot-button issues you may discuss with your legislators. See also:
Session Prep: Charter school performance

Session Prep: TRS benefits
Session Prep: Vouchers/tax credits
Session Prep: School discipline
Session Prep: Texas schools' success

Session Prep: Communicating with your legislators

Student testing:

Why it’s a hot issue

While teachers have been saying it for years, there is finally a growing sentiment among parents and even some policymakers that there is an overemphasis on standardized testing resulting from students’ test scores being the basis for the state’s educational accountability system.

In January 2012, then-Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said publicly that student testing in Texas had become a “perversion of its original intent.” He called for an accountability system that measured “every other day of a school’s life besides testing day.” Scott stepped down as commissioner in July.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, the vice-chair of the House Committee on Public Education who is retiring from the Texas Legislature in January 2013, penned an editorial in July 2012 that stated that “public schools are spending too much time on testing.” He wrote that he believes the state can reduce testing for most students while actually improving educational accountability.

Texas legislators and legislative candidates appear to be hearing the calls to lessen the emphasis on high-stakes testing. Many candidates have campaigned on platforms of reducing high-stakes testing, and several key legislators have started online discussion groups centered on the topic in an attempt to gather more information in preparation for possible legislation during the 2013 legislative session.

Study on testing-based accountability systems

While test-based accountability systems were intended to motivate school administrators, teachers and students to perform better, these types of systems have not increased student achievement enough to bring the U.S. close to the levels of the highest achieving countries, according to the 2011 National Research Council report, “Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education.”

The report also noted that test-based accountability results in “teaching to the test,” which increases students’ knowledge of the tested subject matter but allows their understanding of untested material to stay the same or decrease. This can result in an inflated picture of what students actually know with respect to the full range of content standards, according to the study.

“It is unreasonable to implement incentives tied to tests on a narrow range of content and then criticize teachers for narrowing their instruction to match the tests,” said the committee of academics who published the report.

They said that when incentives are used (tests are tied to accountability) the performance measures need to be broad enough to align with desired student outcomes. This means not only expanding the range of content covered by tests but also considering other student outcomes beyond a single test. 

Study on testing itself

Then there are those who question the validity of the tests themselves. In July 2012, The New York Times and other major news organizations reported on University of Texas at Austin education professor Walter Stroup’s studies, which say there is a “glitch” in the TAKS that renders the test useless at measuring the true effects of classroom instruction.

Stroup’s study results, which he presented to the Texas House Public Education Committee in June 2012, showed that “item response theory,” a model used in standardized test design by companies like Pearson, Texas’ test developer, produces a test that is more sensitive to how it ranks students than on measuring what they have learned.

In 2009, Stroup wrote of his research: “There is increasing evidence that flaws in current test design should all but disqualify their continued use as metrics of accountability, especially in science and mathematics education.”

TCTA’s stance on testing and accountability

TCTA favors a reduced emphasis on high-stakes testing. Standardized assessments should be used as diagnostic tools to help educators provide individualized instruction to students. The number of tests should be reduced, and excessive test preparation should be eliminated.

Further, TCTA opposes efforts to tie student test scores to teacher compensation, appraisals and employment decisions in light of the significant and growing body of research indicating these uses are not valid or reliable.