How controversial is high-stakes standardized testing in Texas? Recently, even Bill Hammond said, "As far as changes, there are some that need to be made."
This is the same Bill Hammond who, in a guest column for the Austin American-Statesman, dismissed criticism of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (or STAAR test) as "nothing more than rhetorical warfare, full of flair but devoid of facts." It's the same Bill Hammond who throws considerable weight around the capitol as the head of the Texas Association of Business. And it's the same Bill Hammond who took Texas public schools hostage when he said, "We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained."
Hammond conceding that the STAAR test has flaws is a modest improvement. It's along the lines a helicopter mom admitting that she might not need to save mantle space for a Nobel Prize and an Olympic medal for her special snowflake.
Presumably, Hammond still believes what he wrote last summer: "The fact is that accountability works and should be expanded, not dismantled." Here Hammond has distilled the flaw in both his reasoning and his argument. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, when Hammond refers to "accountability" I do not think that word means what he thinks it means.
Hammond is conflating accountability with testing, or "assessment" in education parlance. "I don't think we should call them assessments at all. They are a governance check," said Karen Rue, superintendant of Northwest ISD, who supports holding schools accountable to taxpayers. At a recent panel discussion at the Lyndon B. Johnson School for Public Affairs, four different school superintendants took turns first pledging allegiance to accountability and then trashing assessment as it is now required.
"We're not against accountability. Accountability is good... the right dose of accountability," said Steve Flores, superintendant in Harlingen ISD. "Possibly not every grade needs to be tested."
Therein lies the truth that gives the lie to Hammond's threat to oppose school funding lest accountability be "dismantled." Everyone supports accountability even amid Greek-style austerity. These superintendants stretch our public school tax dollars beyond recognition. Scott Elliff, the superintendant in Corpus Christi, talked of finding "efficiencies" such as closing schools, reducing athletics and letting teachers go but says using "excessive assessment" as the sole measure of accountability is getting in the way of educating kids.
The fact that over-testing is corrupting our classrooms is a self-evident truth to teachers, parents and administrations. In fact, 77 percent of all school boards representing 86 percent of all Texas schoolchildren that have adopted resolutions opposing high-stakes testing as a perversion of public education.
Houston ISD shows why. The Texas school year is 180 days long, but superintendant Terry Grier says Houston schools needed 65 days for the STAAR test last year. "That drives me crazy," said Grier. "I do think we assess way too much in Texas. ... It's very difficult for me to believe that we have to test kids in the second grade and in the third grade and in the fourth grade and in the fifth grade and in the sixth grade every year in four different subjects."
"We don't need to do that for every student in every school year to make sure our state is moving forward," said Rue.
The wincing irony of STAAR and the TAKS test that it succeeded is that they were supposed to make our kids "college ready." Education researchers -- the math nerds we're trying to turn all our kids into -- assert those tests are being misused. A UT professor named Walter Stroup has found that only a small fraction of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test even measured classroom instruction. Yet tests are the sole measure by which we hold schools, teachers and our children accountable. That's like saying a broken hammer is the best tool to caulk a window.
A consensus is emerging among teachers, administrators, and parents that that we can achieve accountability by giving the right tests less often. Put simply, we can't make our kids taller by measuring them against the wall every day. It would be nice if Hammond would put away the ruler he's threatening the legislature with and start cooperating.