Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Texas Legislature considers revising testing

TAKS may lose its sting
Texas lawmakers consider school ratings that reward student progress
08:43 AM CDT on Monday, April 14, 2008
By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Lawmakers who lead the way on education policy are warming to the idea of major changes to Texas' report card system for public schools, which already gets failing marks from superintendents and teachers.

A new version, as currently envisioned, would dramatically alter the focus of student testing, which forms the basis for school report cards, and introduce new incentives for schools that make gains.

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At the same time, educators and lawmakers – not to mention parents – want to see less drilling of students for the annual Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and less severe penalties for schools that have trouble meeting their achievement goals.

All in all, dissatisfaction with the current testing-and-rating regimen is building momentum for significant changes when the Legislature next meets in January.

"The stick can work, but the carrot works better," said House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, co-chairman of the committee that is considering revisions of the accountability system.

"Our system should be recognizing and rewarding the best schools and helping repair those that are low performing," said Mr. Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands.

The current system annually grades every school and district in the state based on their TAKS scores and student dropout rates. Schools are graded exemplary, recognized, acceptable or unacceptable.

Superintendents, school boards, teachers and parents anxiously await the performance ratings each year, as they represent the chief measure of how well schools are doing in educating their students. Parents and real estate agents typically use the evaluations to locate neighborhoods with the best schools.

Increasingly, though, educators and parents have voiced dissatisfaction with the grading system, arguing that the massive changes in education since the system was first implemented in 1994 have made it obsolete. Among those changes are increased federal attention and a stronger state curriculum.

"It fails to address the individual needs of students," said Plano Senior High School science teacher Karen Shepherd. "It looks at students en masse as numbers, not as individuals."

Ms. Shepherd, who was the state's 2005 secondary school teacher of the year, said teachers want a system that is diagnostic instead of punitive. "It needs to determine where students start and look at their growth over a year instead of expecting them all to meet a certain level of proficiency" on a single test, she said.

"I know as a person I don't like being judged on one action, and I would never look at my students on just one day," she said.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, agrees. She would like to see a major shift in the testing program so that it focuses on academic growth of students over the school year rather than requiring them to meet minimum standards, as the state now does with the TAKS.

Acceptable performance ratings for schools are based on a minimum percentage of all students at each campus passing the exam in the spring, along with a certain share of various student subgroups. For example, schools last year had to have 65 percent of their students pass in reading and 45 percent pass in math to be graded "acceptable."

"We need to look at a system that shows the progress of youngsters over a school year and not base everything on a one-shot test," said Ms. Shapiro, who leads the Select Committee on Public School Accountability with Mr. Eissler.

One way to do that, she said, is to measure the improvement in skills from one year's TAKS to the next. If students at a particular campus registered enough improvement over a year's time, it would result in an acceptable rating. If the average improvement in test scores was good enough, it would bring the school a higher rating.

Ms. Shapiro said many lawmakers also want more concentration on how to improve low-performing schools and less focus on punishing failure.

Incentives could include expanding the state's merit-pay plans or giving schools more flexibility on state requirements.

Another reason to revamp the accountability system is the new testing program that will be launched in high schools in the 2011-12 school year. Beginning with ninth-graders that year, students will be required to take a dozen end-of-course exams through high school and get a passing score in each subject area to earn a diploma.
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Perhaps someone could get the attention of the California legislature
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