Texas education accountability system

Texas education accountability system
"Watch Out, America" 
by Donna Garner 

September 6, 1999

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Someone in Ohio just wrote to me and said that her state school superintendent had recently visited Texas to learn about the Texas education accountability system.

Sometimes I am ashamed to admit that I am from Texas when I hear people say they are using our Texas education accountability system as a model. What that really means is that the Texas Education Agency has shown another state how to "corrupt" the data in order to fool the public.

When I hear of another fluff piece about how wonderful the Texas accountability system is, I always want to ask the following two questions

(1) If our Texas students are making such wonderful progress, how come we classroom teachers are not just thrilled with the "new and improved" students who are entering our classrooms each year? Why do our own classroom tests show that students' skills are getting worse rather than better?

(2) If the Texas-controlled/TEA-controlled TAAS scores are going up so much, how come Texas' scores on nationally normed tests (e.g., SAT, ACT, Stanford 9, ITBS) are not skyrocketing at the same miraculous rate?

The "system" is really very simple

Design state tests which look good to the public when released after administering, but never let the public know how the questions are actually weighted. Also, don't release all the various versions of the tests -- just the ones that look particularly rigorous.

Structure the weighting system so that the scores are low the first year the tests are given. Each year, lower the bar on the weighting system in order to make sure the scores go steadily up.

Require that all tests be given and scored before announcing any state results. That way the state agency will have plenty of time to tinker with the weighting system to make sure the data shows the predetermined results.

If all else fails, dumb down the reading level/competency level of the questions themselves. Put lots of charts and graphs on the tests so that students don't have to draw upon their own knowledge-base but can find the answers in their test booklets instead.

Have the state agency "look the other way" when schools decide to exempt huge percentages of difficult-to-teach students or if large numbers of students just happen to be absent on test days. If the state agency gets caught, they should show "righteous indignation" and put the blame on the local schools. The state agency should select a few schools and make high-profile "examples" of them, bringing out an "erasure report" and a "dropout report" which have been lying dormant for years. Make the public think real teeth are being applied to the local schools.

Write new state curriculum standards which are performance-driven and which will require subjective scoring. Make sure the standards are broad and nebulous so that just about any curriculum could fit. Be careful not to lock in standards which are too explicit for fear that real accountability would follow.

Say that the new standards are rigorous and will take students into the 21st Century while at the same time writing the standards in grade clusters so that the outcomes-based education philosophy of "no deadlines" can be implemented without ever having to use the much-maligned term "OBE." If no definite standards are set, nobody can be held personally responsible for not reaching them.

Continually desensitize the public by talking about "local control and local accountability" until the public thinks that is what they really have when in essence every classroom is controlled by state-mandated requirements which have been heavily influenced by Washington, D. C.

Change the grade levels of the tests frequently so that the public cannot compare longitudinal data over time.

Through legislation, tie all entities of the public schools -- superintendents, principals, teachers, and students -- to the state-mandated tests.

(Job evaluations of superintendents and principals in every school in Texas are now based upon how well their students do on the TAAS. That makes the administrators put pressure on the teachers who put pressure on the students. As of the 76th Legislature, students are also totally tied to the TAAS and are promoted or not promoted based upon their test results. This is not a bad plan for education reform if the tests themselves are "the real thing" with rigorous, knowledge-based, academic content; however, Texas is in the process of writing new TAAS tests which the TEA plans to turn into performance-based, subjectively scored assessments.)

Once every entity is tied to the state-mandated tests, simply change the type of questions on the tests. Emphasize open-response and process-oriented questions that don't have right or wrong answers but that are evaluated subjectively by the state graders. Put lots of questions on the tests which ask students to give their opinions or state their feelings.

At that point, the state-mandated test results can easily be "managed." The state agency who controls the tests can implement whatever social/political agendas are currently popular. Since local teachers will be forced to teach whatever is on the state-mandated tests, popular social/political agendas will control local classroom curriculum, thus determining the way the next generation thinks.

As a classroom teacher, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of grooming my curriculum to align with the way unknown people in "high places" think. I am much more comfortable with exposing my students to knowledge-based curriculum that is designed to increase my students' academic achievement. After they have a solid foundation in basic, traditional knowledge, they can arrive at their own adult conclusions regarding the societal ills of our day.

Please forgive us in Texas for leading the way down the slippery slope.


"How To Make Sure No Child Is Left Behind" 
by Donna Garner 

May 8, 2001

I have made it a practice never to criticize without offering a constructive alternative. Here are some recommendations for policymakers which would bring about genuine education reform

Schools need to establish discipline-management plans which define required disciplinary action from the time a student is sent to the office for a disciplinary infraction to the time a student ends up in the juvenile justice system. All schools must have such a plan in place.

States meed to rewrite their standards so that they are explicit, academic, knowledge-based -- so clear and well-defined that individual interpretation is prevented.

Specific goals need to be delineated for each grade level and should spiral upward in difficulty and complexity from one grade level to the next.

Once the standards are knowledge-based, explicit, and grade-level-specific, the state tests need to be carefully aligned with the standards; and the test questions need to be scored objectively.

All students need to be tested with nationally-normed tests (English only) at periodic intervals during the state-testing off-years.

English should be taught in English classes with foreign languages being taught in foreign language classes at the discretion of the local school districts.

Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs should primarily focus on the teaching of phonemic awareness skills.

Pre-K through Grade 3 reading programs should base their curriculum on validated, replicated, peer-reviewed, scientific reading research that stresses the importance of mastering phonemic awareness and decoding skills (phonics).

The decoding skills must be taught systematically and explicitly through at least Grade 3.

Children must practice their decoding skills by reading 90% to 95% decodable text.

Federally funded programs (e.g., Migrant Education, Head Start) for young children should seek to equip parents with phonemic awareness strategies which can be practiced easily in their homes.

Students should not receive their permanent record, grade-point multiplier in an Advanced Placement (AP) course unless they finish the school year in the AP course and take the appropriate AP exam.

The number of students who make 3's, 4's, and 5's should become an integral part of the state's scoring standards for each school report card.



Here is a list of guiding principles which I believe need to be followed in order to improve English / Language Arts / Reading instruction

The first and primary mission of the school is to raise academic achievement.

Nothing must take away from clock hours of instruction in the ELAR classroom (e.g., block scheduling, cultural awareness, vocational instruction).

Discipline must come before learning can take place. Rebellion keeps a child from being able to focus on academic achievement.

The teacher must set up structure in the classroom. If individual students do not adhere to the policies, they should be disciplined on a one-on-one basis.

Discipline can only be established when there is a strong support mechanism in place to support the classroom teacher.

Students must have a clear sense from the moment they enter the classroom that the teacher is the authority figure.

Desks need to be arranged so that they face the teacher, at least for independent learning instruction.

Pre-K and K children must be surrounded with spoken English. They need to participate in oral language activities which are full of interchanges among participants. Getting to hear compound, compound-complex sentences which contain involved sentence structure will help children to develop a sense of what constitutes correct English sentence patterns.

All future academic achievement is dependent upon a child's ability to read.

Phonemic awareness/decoding skills must be taught systematically and explicitly.

Children must practice their new-found knowledge in words which they have already learned how to sound out (i.e., decodable text).

Children must practice sounds, syllables, and then words until automaticity is achieved.

Mastery level cannot be rushed and requires quality and quantity of instructional time.

Many of today's children who come from language-impoverished homes require one-on-one instruction and intervention.

Reading must be taught at the first of the school day while young children are fresh and alert.

During the time that young children are learning decoding skills in the morning, they need to be inundated with listening to great classic pieces of literature read to them later in the day. This will help them to develop cultural literacy, foundational knowledge, a sophisticated vocabulary, and a love of good literature.

K-1 must have the optimum scheduling, the smallest classes, the finest curriculum, and the most qualified phonics-trained reading teachers. A child's academic development in these two grades will determine his future success in all other courses.

Beginning readers should be taught to go from sound to letter, not from letter to sound.

Hearing the sound of the letter(s) and being able to write that sound as a letter(s) will lead students into correct spelling patterns.

Being able to sound out words with automaticity will lead to contented readers whose brains are free to focus on the meanings of the sentences.

Once children have gained the ability to read over 90 to 95% of the words in a book without their being frustrated, they should progress to a book which is on the next higher reading level.

Upper elementary students should continue their progress toward good literacy by being heavily exposed to the time-honored classics throughout their entire school experience.

Students should be expected from their earliest school years to use correct spelling and composition skills in their writing and to use correct English constructions in their speaking.

Grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and composition must be taught systematically and explicitly with skills that increase in depth and complexity as the student moves from K all the way through Grade 12.

The traditional classics cannot be improved upon. They are timeless and have proved themselves to be superior pieces of literature by appealing to countless generations. Children should be introduced to independent reading of traditional classics as early as possible and should continue to read the classics as they progress all the way through school.

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September 6th, 1999

Donna Garner

Education Policy Commentator EducationNews.org

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