For the past year in almost every available venue, opponents of high stakes standardized assessments of public school student achievement have been droning on about the perceived oppression of the Texas public school accountability system, which has been rated by national education organizations as having produced the best high school graduation standard in the country when fully implemented. To be fair, many of these people have a preference for an expanded vocational pathway for students in lieu of what is perceived as an exclusive focus on college readiness, and this is a critical area of development in the current system that needs further attention. But there is significant misunderstanding, often among business and opinion leaders (most prominently in tirades from former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken, who should know better) as well as parents, about where we have been over the past 20 years and where we are going in establishing a framework for the postsecondary readiness of our students.
Let’s examine some of the misunderstandings that confuse this debate:
** “High stakes accountability drives dropouts” – Wrong. Actually, high school graduation rates have increased steadily since the state adopted its accountability system in 1993. And the gap in graduation rates between whites and blacks and Hispanics is narrower in Texas than in the nation as a whole and is gradually closing. Further, based on National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, Texas black and Hispanic students have advanced multiple grade levels in reading and math since accountability was introduced.
** “Teaching to the test is taking away from learning” – It shouldn’t. Good teachers know how to teach to the standards and let the tests take care of themselves, and good school administrators know how to manage this process. The new STAAR assessments will enhance this capability because they are much better aligned with the standards. Further, the notion that testing is dominating the time of teachers and students is a red herring and a local management problem. There is no state requirement that schools pursue the heavy load of practice and benchmark testing that is currently being imposed in many of our schools.
** “All kids are not going to college” – Obviously correct, but we have been moving to multiple pathways for postsecondary readiness for years and this culminated with House Bill 3 in 2009, which created the current accountability system. There are many islands of excellence around the state in the implementation of choices for students to pursue routes to industry certification in a number of fields, and our accountability system accommodates this innovation. Do we need more? Sure, and we’re getting there, and the recommended high school graduation plan provides ample flexibility for college as well as 21st century workplace readiness. But one thing we don’t need is a watering down of rigor in order to pursue the career and technology pathway. The motto should be “one standard, multiple pathways, equal rigor”. Anything less is a disservice to our kids.
The new accountability system significantly and for the first time moves Texas from a standard of “passing” to one of “readiness”, based on the following definition of postsecondary readiness, which is now the organizing principle of the system:
“The range of academic, workforce and social proficiency achievement students should acquire to successfully transition from high school to skilled employment, advanced military training, an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or technical or industry certification, without the need for remediation. The proxy for this standard is community college readiness without remediation.”
When the system is fully implemented, this will represent the highest level of expectations for our kids than anywhere else in the country. We should accept nothing less.