“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."
"I don't much care where –"
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I am very grateful to Lewis Carroll. Every time I find myself frustrated at what seems to be inexplicable nonsense at the Texas State Capitol, I turn to Alice in Wonderland to find both answers and comfort.
This time a legislator - whose name will go unmentioned - proudly announced recently that he intends to introduce a bill to eliminate the state’s tests of students’ knowledge and skills and allow local districts to have the pick of a variety of tests from national vendors. To be fair, this legislator, who is otherwise a pretty smart fellow, acknowledges that he has some details to work out before he presents a bill.
But, still, he has me scratching my head. I realize that there are lots of folks out there who don’t like testing. But unless legislating these days amounts mostly to tickling constituents’ tummies, that’s no basis for this proposal. Further, this legislator somewhat incoherently explains his action in part as a response to the terrible administration of tests by the state’s current vendor. He seems to have forgotten that his angry constituents pushed to replace the former unpopular, but competent vendor with the current incompetent vendor. One wonders why he doesn’t simply demand that the commissioner either get the current vendor to shape up or ship out.
No, instead, he wants to get rid of the state tests. Before this poorly conceived proposal goes much further, its serious problems and consequences should be fully considered.
First, is this plan legal under Federal law? Why get the folks all excited, waste the time of the legislature, and risk hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal aid, if it’s not? The Every Student Succeeds Act is about as clear as it can be. States have the authority to permit a variety of exams for high school testing. But, unless a state is accepted into a very small pilot program, all states must use criterion-referenced, statewide tests for grades 3-8. Suffice to say, as to the pilot, the legislator’s proposal doesn’t even come close to being eligible.
Second, has this legislator bothered to examine the innards of the state tests versus those of the national tests he’s proposing? Indeed, has the state agency ever bothered to open up its vaults to show the public all the data it has on the state tests – how they were constructed, by whom, and to what effect?
Whenever the data are examined, the public will see many interesting things. For one, the state tests are significantly more aligned to Texas’ excellent learning standards than are the other tests. Indeed, the publishers of most of the tests that would be newly eligible brag that their tests are highly aligned instead to the much-criticized Common Core standards. Does this legislator and his Republican colleagues know that? Do the Speaker, Lieutenant Governor, and the Governor?
What difference does it make that the current tests are better aligned to state standards? To begin, it makes state accountability fair and appropriate. Can you see the state trying to hold districts and schools accountable when they’re all using different measures? Further, it gives better guidance to educators in knowing that what they’re being asked to teach is closely in line with what is tested.
I appreciate the legislator’s desire to maximize local control. But the one area the state has always taken an interest in, and the area in which federal law insists it continue to, is to measure and implement consequences, on a statewide basis, for how well students are learning to state standards.
Finally, is it too much to ask that we let the crowd-pleasing issues pass by for a session and instead try to find solutions to our most serious challenges?
The state spends billions of dollars each year on educating our students, yet the trajectory of achievement in recent years has gone flat. Are our dollars being spent effectively and efficiently? Are we paying for strategies and programs that are proven to work? Are we holding the key players properly accountable? Do we prepare and support teachers with research-based strategies, and do we promote effective teachers and teaching?
I realize there are no huzzahs and social media kisses for tackling these and other tough questions that actually make a difference. But, as Lewis Carroll makes clear, which way we go only matters if we truly care where we want to go.