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We fail students with our testing obsession

Updated: November 24, 2013 6:26AM



Students are protesting standardized testing. Parents are refusing to let schools give their kids the tests. Teachers are refusing to administer the tests. School boards are begging for relief from testing mandates. That’s all nice, say the dwindling number of defenders of linking accountability to standardized testing, but if we got rid of tests what would you replace them with?

It’s a fair question, and it’s one that a group of 23 rebellious school districts are determined to answer. If they succeed — and it’s a big if — then American schoolchildren might enjoy an education system judged by something other than a bubble test.

Last week, the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium chose to go ahead with plans to create a new accountability system that doesn’t depend on standardized tests despite opposition from Gov. Rick Perry. The move by the consortium to circumvent Perry offers hope to those who see progress stymied by politicians who equate standardized tests with high standards.

The irony is that Perry and the Texas legislature created the Consortium in the first place to build a next-generation accountability model that utilized technology. Perry might have assumed they would study the problem to death, but the school districts came up with some innovative ideas.

In College Station, high school science and math students could go online to watch lessons from Khan Academy and iTunes U specifically focused on complementing their classroom work. In an Austin suburban school, students taking upper division math classes found that using iPads increased collaboration on homework. In South Texas, students used technology to access coursework at a nearby college and earn dual credit.

By and large, testing got in the way of these school districts, sucking up time they wanted to spend on these creative classroom ideas. When the consortium reported back to the legislature, the eagerness of the districts to reform the testing model was obvious. They asked to dial testing in elementary and middle school way back, to use the SAT and ACT tests in high school to streamline college readiness standards, and to get an independent audit of how well the schools were doing. Best of all for the students — who, allegedly, are the consumers of education — the better they did on tests, the fewer tests they would have to take.

A bill encompassing the consortium’s findings emphasized technology, innovation, flexibility, college-readiness and in-depth teaching. The legislature passed the bill without a dissenting vote. It was exactly what Perry said he wanted when he created the Consortium.

So he vetoed it.

“Flexibility and innovation are important, but we will not compromise academic rigor or student outcomes,” wrote Perry in his veto message.

Last week, the consortium decided to move ahead despite that veto, drawing praise from Rep. Bennett Ratliff, the Republican sponsor of the vetoed bill.

“I think this is clear evidence that schools that are focused on education and learning don’t believe that our current testing program is the best solution to move forward into the 21st century,” said Ratliff.

But trying to develop a new accountability system while simultaneously following the current one makes success less likely. In a 2012 update, the consortium pleaded “that ‘space’ must be provided for new possibilities to emerge, because it is impossible to run alternative or parallel systems in conjunction with the current system.”

Despite the difficulty in chasing two tails, Dawson Orr, consortium co-chair and superintendent of Highland Park ISD, pledges to press on to find an accountability system that actually measures what goes on in schools.

“You know, there’s just an awful lot of authentic work that goes on in classrooms that represents student learning that state and federal bureaucracies don’t know how to handle because they need the ease and convenience of a multiple choice test,” Orr said.

Another Texas leader, the late Speaker Sam Rayburn, once said, “A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” There are a lot of folks trying to get rid of high-stakes testing — and a lot of merit in doing so — but thanks to 23 gutsy school districts, we now have some carpenters looking for an accountability system that makes sense. Good luck to them.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford. His column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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