Guest Column: Education in Wonderland

“Would you tell, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—”.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat is speaking to Alice, in Wonderland. But he might as well be addressing some of Texas’ errant pundits and policymakers who, in a quest to dismantle the state’s standards, assessment and accountability system for public schools, seem unfazed about the consequences for students.

But when it comes to education policy, results for students must be central to the debate on where Texas ought to go from here.

Texas has been a trailblazer in its commitment to prepare all students for college and careers. Yet now that the state requires an additional year of math and science and has introduced end-of-course tests to ensure mastery of high school coursework, some argue that we’re asking too much of our high school students. Reasonable people can disagree on issues such as just how many end-of-course exams students must take or pass to graduate, but is it really unreasonable to expect every student who receives a high school diploma to be ready for work or college?

I say expecting anything less is a disservice to our kids.

Some naysayers call Texas’ focus on college and career-readiness a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education — but that’s just false. Today’s jobs demand more education. By the end of the decade, 60 percent of Texas jobs will require a career certificate or college degree. But currently only about 30 percent of Texas adults have such qualifications, and the majority of those entering technical, community or two-year colleges need remediation.

The military, once seen as a “go to” career for those who choose not to attend college, is no longer. By the Department of Defense’s own measures, one in three high school graduates scores too low on the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Test to be recruited.

The bottom line: We are preparing students for neither college nor a vast spectrum of careers.

Some state legislators are also now debating whether Texas should scrap the STAAR exams in grades 3-8, introduce tests with no alignment to the state’s standards or assess “samples” of students for school accountability purposes.

But before we make a wrong turn, let's remember where we came from.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Texas set a critical foundation for improving schools: setting academic standards, designing assessments to measure student progress against those standards, being transparent about results and holding schools accountable for the progress of all children.

It wasn’t enough to know how a school was doing in general; we had to make sure all kids were learning — because many of them weren’t. So Texas publicly reported test results not just for campuses but also for each school’s African-American, Hispanic, low-income and special-education students.

It took courage, and let’s be clear why it was necessary. It wasn’t to shackle the creativity of teachers or narrow the curriculum. It was an insurance policy of sorts to make sure disadvantaged and struggling students were not ignored and that, at a minimum, schools would bear some responsibility for helping all students read and cipher on grade level.

Texas has not gone far enough or fast enough to improve outcomes for its children. But despite entrenched interests who’ve fought these reforms, there is no question they’ve paid off for students.

A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that Texas had the biggest advances in eighth grade math scores since 1990 of any of the large, diverse states in America, and was the only state among Texas, Florida, California, New York and Illinois where eighth grade math and science scores were above the national average.

According to the nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the achievement gap has narrowed in Texas, although, again, not as much as we’d like. In fourth-grade reading, black and Hispanic students have gained a full grade level since 1992. NAEP shows similar gains for eighth graders.

The progress Texas has made in student achievement at the elementary and middle-school levels is testament to exactly why we must now focus on getting better results in high schools.

Without standards designed for college and career readiness, our students won’t be ready for the demands of the 21st century global economy.

Getting rid of assessments is akin to shooting the messenger. Testing is critical to knowing whether a student has mastered the basics — or even better, the skills needed for success. Demanding less testing as a “solution” to insufficient progress is like tearing up a child’s report card when she receives an “F.” It perpetuates a Wonderland fantasy where the problems we can’t see aren’t really there.

We must also remember that standards, tests and accountability policies are tools. They don’t make learning happen; great teachers do. Test results reveal where needs are greatest, and we must meet these challenges with effective teachers, strong curriculum, choices for families and students, and break-the-mold interventions for failing schools.

Listening to some in Texas these days, you’d get the sense we’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole with no idea where to go or why. But we know the path to improving student achievement. It’s a trail Texas has blazed for three decades.

Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education and White House domestic policy advisor, is president of a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.