Why I voted against HB 5
I felt strongly enough about the shortcomings in HB 5 that I was one of only two members of the House voting against it yesterday. I felt strongly enough that normally I would have delivered a speech in opposition to the bill at the conclusion of the debate, but after 9 hours of debate, I don’t think anyone on the floor was interested in continuing the discussion, and it was clear it was not going to impact the outcome.
Still, I found that a lot of the floor discussion - and a lot of what I read online about testing - reflects a critical misunderstanding of testing’s track record in Texas. So I’ve decided to post here, for those who are interested, what I would have said if I’d given a floor speech against HB 5.
Illuminating the shadows
Six years ago, I had a discussion with a superintendent from an exurban school district that was rapidly growing and rapidly diversifying. This superintendent wanted me to know why school accountability - the system of evaluating student performance on standardized assessments and rating schools based on that performance - was such bad policy.
He told me how population growth in his community had transformed his previously rural, mostly middle-class, nearly all-white community so that now, on one campus, he had over 30 African American kids at one elementary school. The number 30 was significant because above 30 the accountability system required that the campus not only be evaluated on the achievement of all its students, but also specifically on the performance of the African American students on a disaggregated basis. And he said that the low test scores of these students put that campus, which had previously received very high ratings from the state, at risk of being labeled Academically Unacceptable. He told me that even though the rest of the students on the campus continued to do well, he was forced to marshal enormous resources to lift the performance of those African American students, to avoid a label that would jeopardize local property values, anger the local chamber of commerce, and provoke a major backlash from parents.
So I asked him, then what happened? Well, through enormous effort they had managed to lift the African American students’ scores up to avoid the label, he told me.
That’s supposed to be an argument against accountability? That seems like exactly the argument in favor of it. It’s not that this superintendent wouldn’t have wanted those kids to do well in the absence of accountability - it’s that he wouldn’t have had the same incentive to focus as much attention or resources on them without accountability.
And this is not an exceptional story; it’s the norm. I asked one of my colleagues on the floor yesterday, who I knew had a close relationship with a mutual friend of ours who works in special education, if he had discussed with our friend the possibility of weakening school accountability for the performance of special ed students on standardized tests. And he told me our friend had said “Don’t do that - it’s how I get the administration to support our department!”
Think of this phenomenon operating at scale. Now consider this: in Texas, since the implementation of accountability measured through disaggregated student data beginning in the early 1990’s, Texas 8th grade Hispanic students have gained 38 points on the NAEP math test - 14 points more than Hispanic students in the rest of the country - reducing the achievement gap by 22% relative to Anglo students in Texas. African American 8th graders have gained 43 points on the NAEP math test - 17 points more than African American students in the rest of the country - reducing the achievement gap by 29% relative to Anglo students in Texas.
And no, the correlation between those academic gains and the implementation of standards-based accountability does not prove a causal effect. But if you look at the timing of those gains in Texas, and then look at similar gains achieved by minority students in the rest of the country the following decade after NCLB introduced accountability in other states, it stretches the imagination not to see a strong connection. Look at these charts and note the introduction of our accountability system in the 90’s, and NCLB in 2001:
Not to say that all is well with testing in Texas
I have said for some time that we have lots of problems with testing in Texas.
- We administer so-called End of Course exams four weeks before the end of the course - sacrificing 15 or more days of instruction that could have been used to help students learn more and be better prepared for the test.
- We’ve cloaked the tests in secrecy by not releasing them for parents and educators to review, causing many to question whether the test is a valid measurement of the things we want our kids to learn.
- We’ve wrapped a nuclear missile launch level of security around the tests, creating a “lock down” environment on many campuses that prevents all students on the campus from learning anything on days where any students on the campus are testing - which is a lot of days.
- We’ve attached such high stakes to the tests that we’ve created a culture of testing rather than learning in many schools, and we’ve put tens of thousands of students at risk of dropping out.
None of these problems are endemic to standards-based accountability; all could be solved through common-sense improvements in the way we administer tests - which I have proposed.
My specific concerns about HB 5
There are some good things in HB 5. It gets rid of this terrible designation - the “Minimum High School Diploma” - in current law for students who opt out of the recommended, college-prep high school curriculum, and it bolsters the offerings under the new “Foundation” plan with better career preparatory offerings. But it does two things that I believe are going to have very negative consequences for the state:
1. It eliminates the current law that presumes that all students entering high school are capable of and want to pursue the most rigorous curriculum path, the path that affords them the widest range of opportunities in the future. On a couple of occasions Chairman Aycock argued that this “Distinguished” diploma path (as newly renamed by HB 5) was not a “higher” or “better” plan, but the name “distinguished” belies this point, as does the fact that only students in the distinguished path are eligible for automatic college admission under the Top 10% rule.
So instead of defaulting students into the higher pathway, as current law does, HB 5 contemplates a process whereby every 9th grader, in collaboration with her family and school counselor, elects a pathway in the first year of high school - when some of them will still be 14 years old. For some students with strong parental involvement, I’m sure this will be fine. But for some students - who may be capable of greater things than their individual counselor, their parents, or even they themselves believe - there is a very high risk that this decision will constrain their future opportunities in a profound way.
There should be no stigma attached to families making an informed decision, perhaps halfway through a student’s high school career, to opt out of a college-prep curriculum and seek more career preparatory coursework. I’m not saying that defaulting every kid into a college prep program means all kids want or need college prep coursework. But when we presume all kids are capable of college level work, and start preparing them for it, there is no doubt in my mind we change the futures of some kids whose promise may not otherwise have been recognized.
60% of the students in Texas schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. It is the fastest growing sector of our student population. If we do not find ways to steer increasing numbers of them toward higher education and knowledge-economy skills, we will pay a high price down the road.
2. HB 5 eliminates all standardized assessment of student achievement beyond freshman and sophomore level coursework, and reduces us down to one assessment per subject area.
As I said before, I believe testing needs to be reformed in Texas - by moving the tests to the end of the school year; by releasing the test for review by parents and educators; by reducing the stakes so they can be used diagnostically rather than punitively - but HB 5’s elimination of all assessments in reading and math beyond the level of English II and Algebra I is a mistake. We know we already have a huge problem with the cost of remedial classes in higher education. By not measuring achievement on a standardized basis beyond Alg I and Eng II, we will have an increasing challenge with students whose transcripts say they are prepared for college level work but who are forced to take costly remedial classes before beginning their higher education. This is a problem that impacts both students and the state adversely.
But I’m even more concerned about the effect of the reduced number of tests on the accountability ratings of campuses serving the most challenging student populations. On those campuses, we have long argued that they should get some recognition not just for the absolute achievement scores of their students, but also for the academic growth they achieve - recognizing that not all students enter high school at the same level. If we measured growth as well as absolute achievement, it would dramatically change the landscape of which schools we think are performing well, and which schools are not.
But under HB 5, we only administer one test in each subject. This makes it impossible to measure growth year-over-year. So a House that claims to want to reduce the burden of high stakes testing has instead concentrated those stakes into a smaller number of tests and focused their effect on the campuses serving our most at-risk students. I don’t get it.
Wisdom from the front lines
As we prepared for HB 5 to come to the floor, I visited with a number of educators who work directly with the standardized tests to find out what they thought. I was surprised at what I heard. I want to share some excerpts from Joy Harris Philpott, Director of Assessment and Accountability at Hays CISD (she’s given me permission to share, and this is reflective of the other opinions I heard):
I feel like the uproar generated by the move to a 4X4 required curriculum and end of course exams in 12 core classes (15 total tests) has resulted in (deliberately or not) the state clamoring for a return to mediocrity. We’ve just graduated the first class on the 4X4 curriculum requirement. We’ve just administered the first round of STAAR end of course tests—yet we’re going to throw a great deal of it out because people feel that we either can’t meet higher standards or don’t want to fund them…
Section 5 of HB5 removes the requirement for a 4X4 curriculum and returns us to three required courses in the core content areas. This will have many students mostly “done” by their senior year in high school, and a “blow off” year during one’s last year of high school does not facilitate a successful transition to college.
…Are we really okay with saying that a student can graduate from high school having only demonstrated proficiency in the above courses (two freshman level, one sophomore level, and one junior level)? In a global economy we’re saying that it’s okay for students to choose to take either world geography or world history and that we won’t assess them on either? While this section of the bill will make my job as district test coordinator easier, it sends the message that we’ve lowered our standards. I’d work twice as hard for higher standards and the resources to support them…
Regardless what the state accountability system ends up being, we’ll be reporting on lowered standards if we remove the 4x4 and say that it’s okay to graduate from high school having demonstrated proficiency in freshman and sophomore level classes.
My final complaint about HB 5 - and this one is admittedly a little unfair, since one bill can’t solve every problem - is that it doesn’t address what should be the most important question of this session: how are we going to improve education in Texas so that our student achievement improves? I have a lot of opinions on this, which I’ll share in another post tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ve violated every rule of blogging already with a post this long. Thank god I didn’t deliver it as a floor speech, right?