"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

TAKS the Ruination of Education in Texas

An important piece from the Brownsville Herald:
Forum: High-stakes testing must change
October 16, 2007 - 11:43PM

If Andreu Sutterby could change anything about standardized testing, it might be the way that it’s drilled and administered — or he’d do away with it all together.

“Teachers teach to the TAKS and that can get pretty boring,” Sutterby said of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, required of third through 11th grade students.

The 13-year-old suggested a more relaxed preparation and testing schedule consuming only one semester of the school year, “then you can teach whatever you want,” he said to applause Saturday at a public forum on the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sitting at the end of an eight-person panel of experts, educators and parents, the Vela Middle School student shared his observations on standardized testing.

Schools “see students as scores,” Sutterby said. “It considers them a liability if they don’t do as well.”

The group was assembled at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College for a public forum on NCLB legislation, which is being considered for reauthorization in Congress. The discussion focused largely on “negative effects” of high-stakes testing.

President Bush signed the NCLB Act into law in 2002, requiring standardized testing for all children and to “promote school reform.”

The act enables public schools to receive federal funding and creates accountability standards meant to ensure that those funds are producing “real results” and quality education, according to research on the Latino Education Policy in Texas, conducted at UT in Austin.

The act ties funds for public education to states’ performance on standardized tests for students as early as the third grade and effectively heightens the movement of high-stakes testing, UT graduate student researchers concluded.

Teachers are required to prepare students for the rigors of the exam that determines whether they are promoted to the next grade. The 11th grade exam determines if a student graduates, regardless of their academic standing.

The complaint among educators and test takers has been that the classroom curriculum becomes mandated by the test, leaving room for little else. When a student does not pass, they are removed from extracurricular activities and drilled on the subject.

“They’re killing everything we want to do because they want us to take the TAKS,” Sutterby said and drew laughs by playfully declaring that “TAKS kills brain cells.”

The test does not kill brain cells but according to panelists at Saturday’s forum, it does squash creativity, individuality and a teacher’s freedom to incorporate students’ strengths and evaluate with multiple measures.

Sharon Nichols, an assistant professor of educational psychology at UTSA and co-author of “Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools,” was the featured speaker at Saturday’s event.

“My work has shown that high-stakes testing is not working,” Nichols said. “In fact, it’s doing a lot of damage.”

Though she recognizes tests are “important,” they should not be the only measure of accountability.

“We are not anti-testing by any means,” she said in an April 25 interview with PILOTed magazine. “We are against testing if the only use of the test is to determine consequences; that is inappropriate.”

At Saturday’s forum, Nichols compared schools to factories in which teachers are “factory workers” and students are “products” in a high-stakes testing environment.

“Compassion is being undermined — our teachers’ ability to care about students,” she said.

Kathy Gomez, a first grade teacher in Brownsville, said our youngest students are being neglected in favor of those in higher, TAKS-testing grades. “I have first graders who come to my classroom not knowing how to read in English,” Gomez said.

“We want our children to learn how to read,” she said. “We want the supplies and the funding to do so.”

A first-year teacher at Rivera High School also complained of the constraints testing places on classroom learning, especially for math and science.

“Not one day goes by that we don’t hear the word ‘TAKS’,” she said from her audience seat. “We have oversized classrooms, sometimes up to 45 students. We don’t have enough desks and we just got enough chairs. We can’t conduct class, much less labs. These students can’t practice what they’re learning,” she said.

Nichols said she hears stories like this “over and over again.”

“Administrators need to hear as many of our stories, of what’s happening, as possible,” she said.

Nichols met with a group of BISD administrators and educators Friday, including area superintendents and deputy superintendent Beto Gonzales who she described as “open” to her research.

“It was wonderful to have been invited to the table,” she said. “We didn’t always agree but we had an open dialogue … about what’s working and what’s not working.”

UTB-TSC and the Center for Civic Engagement helped facilitate the meeting. The Center is a partner in the Brownsville 2020 project, which identified the quality of public school education (K-12), as a top concern among respondents to a community survey.

Brownsville students have historically scored higher in reading and writing than math or science portions of the exam, according to the Texas Education Agency’s data. The district’s accountability rating for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 school years was “Academically Acceptable.”

Texas uses accountability ratings to indicate the overall performance of each school and district, according to TEA. The ratings are based on TAKS and SDAA II (State Developed Alternative Assessment) test results, dropout rates for seventh and eighth grade and school completion rates for grades nine through 12.

Districts were rated Academically Acceptable in 2006 if 60 percent of students passed the reading, writing and social studies portions of the TAKS; at least 40 percent passed in math and at least 35 percent passed in science. In 2007, the standards increase by 5 points in all subjects and will incrementally increase through 2010.

Meanwhile, standardized testing is “driving good teachers out of the system,” according to Peter Farruggio, an assistant professor of bilingual education at UT-Pan American in Edinburg.

Farruggio says NCLB institutes a system of “test and punish … with no additional resources for low income schools — that means the kids that you and I teach.”

Farruggio has helped organize parent groups and parent-led protests against standardized testing in California’s public school system. “People have had it up to here with the testing,” he said.

“Yes, the battle is fought on many fronts, but it’s going to require grassroots organizing … That’s the foundation of this country.”

The Association of Brownsville Educators is taking a more formal approach, drafting a detailed recommendation to improve NCLB legislation that regulates testing standards.

Alberto Alegria, president of the Association and a teacher at Besteiro Middle School said simply that, “it’s time for change.”

The group is asking that the law reduce class size requirement, use more than test scores to measure students’ learning and invest in highly qualified teachers.

“All children have a basic right to a great public school,” Alegria said.

Near the end of the meeting, Reba Cardenas-McNair, a local developer, joined the discussion with an observation on the quality of job applicants produced by local public schools.

“I can’t hire Brownsville graduates” even for clerical positions, she said, because their resumes often have grammar and spelling errors.

“I’ve had to hire Los Fresnos graduates,” Cardenas-McNair said and complained especially about the confusion between the words “their” and “there” among applicants.

“Because of an overemphasis on standardized testing, there’s been a lower focus placed on teaching writing,” Farruggio said, explaining the common error.

Panelists encouraged Cardenas-McNair to consider job candidates on other merits. “They need to know how to be professional, speak to clients,” one offered as an example.

“Yes,” Cardenas-McNair replied. “But they also need to know how to spell.”

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