The following opinion column from Texas School Alliance leaders was published by the Dallas Morning News on November 20, 2022:
By Brian Woods and HD Chambers
Next year, Texas legislators can finally break our state’s overreliance on a single test in the teaching of our children and the evaluation of our public schools. It is an opportunity to deliver the relief and sensible reform that parents and educators consistently say they support and want. It is also a chance to move Texas toward a system that better tells us whether schools are meeting the expectations of employers and Texans.
Let’s all hope that legislators rise to this moment.
Our current accountability system depends heavily on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, better known as STAAR. In fact, STAAR performance is the only variable used to evaluate Texas elementary and middle schools in the state’s A-F system of grading campuses. This system defines success too narrowly while putting enormous pressure on kids.
Texans know that a single test is an inadequate measuring stick. In a Texas School Alliance scientific survey of Texas Democratic, Republican and independent voters earlier this year, 55% of all voters said they opposed the STAAR being the single determinant of certain school rankings, with only 26% supporting it. Furthermore, 54% of all voters opposed the A-F school rating system for elementary and middle schools.
The call for a broader accountability system also came from more than 15,000 Texans who participated in conversations and surveys sponsored over the last year by Raise Your Hand Texas, whose recent Measure What Matters report declared, “We strongly believe our students are more than one test on one day.”
STAAR is not our only option for measuring schools, as any teacher would tell you. Teachers also know that success can and should be gauged by graduation from high school, earning a job with a livable wage, entry into higher education or military service, engagement in fulfilling extracurricular activities, healthy friendships, growth in confidence and curiosity, and more. These are just a few of the areas that we all instinctively look to when measuring personal success.
Teachers often hear from former students (or their parents) who have hit various milestones in life, thanking those teachers for believing in them and encouraging them to pursue their dreams. These are the types of trophies that educators value. Teachers are professionals who skillfully deploy methods aimed at moving each student closer to their full potential every day. Unfortunately, some of this vital work is difficult to measure in real time.
Texas needs to define success in ways that better reflect schools’ true purpose. Other states have begun to use valid, reliable indicators in addition to state tests to provide a more complete view of student achievement. Attendance rates, prekindergarten enrollment, teacher surveys and extracurricular participation can all help tell us whether schools are working well.
At least that’s what we hear from a key consumer of public education — the employers who look to our public schools to prepare its future workforce. Executives in the business coaching industry recently described to Forbes the importance of 15 “soft skills,” such as empathy, creative problem-solving and observation skills, that are important for prospective employees to demonstrate. A metric such as extracurricular participation will likely tell us more about whether a school is equipping its student with these vital skills than the STAAR test.
The problem isn’t the STAAR alone. It’s the way the state uses the STAAR. There is an important role for the STAAR (or some form of assessment), and that is to help inform instruction and monitor student progress. While the STAAR can help measure a school’s success, we also need other metrics.
The question now is whether our elected leaders will listen to constituents calling for a more intuitive accountability system. We are holding our state and our students back by clinging to the bygone notion that tests, and tests alone, can tell us whether students are learning and schools are working. No effective education policy has ever tested its way to prosperity. Our students will enter a world and an economy that is far more complex than the simplicity of our current accountability system.
For legislators who want to measure our schools more accurately, the time is now. They have a full legislative session ahead of them and meaningful public opinion on their side. All we need is the will to do something better for our students and their future.
Brian Woods is superintendent of Northside ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, which represents the largest school districts in Texas. HD Chambers is the incoming executive director of the Texas School Alliance. They wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.