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Houston Parent’s Experience Exposes Preposterousness of Measurement Based on Single Test

September 5, 2018

Despite the fact that no educator ever believed that a single test should be the basis for determining the rating of a school, the rating of a teacher, or the acceptance of a student into a school, politicians, parents, and voters continue to conflate high test scores with high performance. The result? A laser like focus on test scores strips public schools of the elective offerings that make them attractive to children and parents and reinforces the misguided belief that public schools are failing.

A recent blog post from Sarah Becker, a Houston Independent School District parent illustrates this consequence perfectly. The post opens with Ms. Becker describing her children’s experiences at a “failing” Houston public school.

A couple of weeks ago the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released their ratings of schools and school districts. I am the mother of two children at a school in Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest school district and the seventh largest district in the country. How did my kids’ school fare in this year’s accountability system? The school failed, receiving an “Improvement Required” rating.

Does that give me pause about sending my kids there? Not one bit and I’ll tell you why.

This past year was the first one my children spent at their elementary school. From the moment they set foot on campus, my children were accepted and loved. The physical environment of the school is welcoming, and they have a nice, new building with lots of natural light. And in a time when public school budgets are incredibly austere, my kids’ elementary school found a way to hire a PE teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a nurse and a social worker last year. To have all of those is incredibly rare in HISD-in fact, this elementary school was the only one within driving range of our home to offer those.It has a rooftop garden and a makerspace. And finally most amazingly, my children learned AN ENTIRE SECOND LANGUAGE last year. We literally dropped them into new classes having had almost zero exposure to Spanish and they ended the year speaking, reading and writing two languages. The progression has been amazing to watch. Their worlds are bigger and more beautiful because of their new school.

So how does a school like this end up getting a “failing” grade? Here’s Ms. Becker’s answer:

The system used to identify “failing” schools is unsound and inaccurate. It is based solely on how certain students perform on a single standardized test on a single day. 

You have probably seen the meme floating around social media with the following quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” As cliché as that quote is, I find much truth in it when applied to our “accountability” system. If you judge every school by the standards of the TEA, some very successful schools will receive failing ratings not because they fail to educate, but because the accountability system demands that fish ride bicycles by making children conform to tests.

Yet test-based accountability persists. Why? In large measure it’s the result of the mental formations voters have based on their personal experience in schools where they were conditioned to believe their “success” was solely based on how they performed on tests given by teachers in class. Didn’t the valedictorian at their school achieve that ranking because they did well on a succession of tests administered by teachers? Didn’t the National Merit Scholars in their school achieve that distinction because they did well on a single test? Didn’t their classmates get into a prestigious college and win a scholarship there because they did well on the SAT and a succession of tests administered by teachers? And because voters are conditioned to believe that tests determined the personal “successes” in school based on their own personal experience it seems reasonable to them that tests should be used to judge schools. In the meantime, politicians LOVE using tests to judge schools! They are relatively cheap and fast to administer and they provide seemingly precise results that can be used to rank schools the same way schools rank students.

Ms. Becker was dismayed that her children’s school “failed”, but she is astute in noting that “…no part of my kids’ experience at our school last year was a part of any accountability data.” And what part’s of her kid’s experience did she focus on in her opening paragraph?

  • they have a nice, new building with lots of natural light.
  • they have a PE teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a nurse and a social worker
  • they rooftop garden and a makerspace

These features are easy to measure, but they are often dismissed by those who criticize “input” measures that are not only easy to measure but also costly. After all, if every school was required to be up-to-date with PE, art, music, health and social services, and technology it would cost millions! And in the end, I did not get the sense that Ms. Becker saw those as important metrics. Rather, she believed that the current method of measurement was flawed because it failed to capture what was most important to her:

Until this system is overhauled, I will continue to pay no mind to it and pay attention to the very clear evidence in front of me: my kids are excited to show up to school every morning and love their school. Their teachers are caring professionals.That is enough accountability for me.

Can these items that are important to parents be measured? Of course! ASK parents to rate whether their children are excited to show up to school every morning and love their school and ask parents if they sense that the teachers in the school are caring professionals. THAT is the accountability that matters most. Test scores? They are not as important as we believe they are.

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