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Data From Annual Independent Tests Help Texas Students
The state bears the responsibility of ensuring a quality education. This role requires providing appropriate funding, but it also means knowing what is happening in classrooms across Texas. And that means having a common metric that produces comparable results.
A debate about the frequency of standardized state testing is underway in the Texas Legislature. What is missing from this discussion, however, is why it matters so much for Texas’ children that the adults get this one right. Until the 1990s, Texas did not administer annual state tests. Before that time, the state had no real way of knowing whether students across Texas were on track in reading and math each year.
That does not mean our students were not being tested during that time. The state administered some tests but not annually at all grade levels. And school districts could create and administer their own achievement tests, although there was no guarantee those exams were linked to the state's standards or were scientifically constructed.
This lack of an annual independent statewide exam left Texas without a reliable way to regularly compare the progress of students across the state. As a result, Texans had no objective means of knowing whether students in Webb County, which has a significant number of children living in poverty, were doing as well in reading and math as students in more prosperous places like Collin County. That meant leaders did not have sufficient data to determine which districts across Texas needed serious interventions to help kids who were falling behind - or which districts needed different kinds of support to help their excelling students go further, faster.
In the 1990s, annual statewide exams were introduced, and, as a result, we are now able to much more clearly see how students across the state are performing relative to each other. Obviously, we have not erased achievement gaps across Texas because we have this comparable data. But, we are getting smarter about how to serve all Texas children, including those students with complex circumstances, because we have this data in hand. Identifying gaps is the first step to closing them.
Unfortunately, some Texas legislators are proposing to unwind these statewide assessments. Instead, they would give school districts the final say in which exams are used to measure the progress of their students. The tests districts select must receive federal approval, but we would lose the apples-to-apples comparison of student progress across Texas.
This is a problem for a simple reason: the state has an obligation to provide parents with comparable, valid data about their child’s academic progress. Districts can differ in the way they test and grade, so parents may wonder whether the A their child is receiving really indicates that have mastered a subject.
Students have a right to know this as well. They are relying upon their public K-12 education to set them up for success in what comes next – college, career, or military service. It is shamefully unfair for students to believe that they are ready when, in fact, they may trail their peers academically.
This is more than a hypothetical scenario, as Bush Institute fellow Mark Dynarski wrote. A major U.S. Department of Education study in the 1990s found a disconcerting gap between scores on standardized tests and grades being given students in high- and low-poverty schools. Students in high poverty schools were receiving grades that overestimated their true grasp of a subject.
The state sets academic standards, and the objectivity of an independent, statewide exam helps state, city, district, and school leaders know if students are progressing and on track. The state has the obligation to know whether standards are being met in order to be a good steward of the investments Texas taxpayers are putting into our 1,000-plus school districts.
Undoubtedly, there is power in the specific knowledge held by local communities when determining how to best educate their young people. Still, the Texas Constitution requires the state to provide students an adequate education. The state bears the responsibility of ensuring a quality education. This role requires providing appropriate funding, but it also means knowing what is happening in classrooms across Texas. And that means having a common metric that produces comparable results.
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