Guest Column: Texas Leads in Tests But Not in Education

Carolyn Heinrich
Carolyn Heinrich

Texas is in the midst of a serious and much-needed conversation about the role that standardized testing can play in improving educational outcomes for children.

Stakeholders from across Texas — parents, school administrators, teachers, business and community leaders, policymakers and others — have come together for critical discussions about where Texas has been and where it is headed in its efforts to graduate more young people with the educational preparation and skills needed to succeed in life. New Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams and recently retired Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken set an engaging tone for this conversation, listening to Texans and widely sharing their views about what meaningful change to the system might look like.

And change is needed. Texas outspends every state in the nation on testing, and not just because of its size. A November 2012 Brookings Institution study showed that California, which had nearly 1 million more students enrolled in grades 3-8 (for which annual testing is federally required), spent approximately $53 million on standardized tests; Texas is spending about $90 million annually.

Texas also leads the nation in the number of tests it requires students to pass to graduate from high school. If there was some association between the amount of testing, the stakes attached to tests, or the total resources dedicated to test-based accountability, wouldn’t Texas be way out in front of the other states by now in terms of its students’ educational performance? Rather, Texas is still behind many of its peers on a number of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures, and among the 10 states at the top for students’ NAEP exam performance, seven did not have any high school exit exam, and the other three required passage of no more than three exit exams.

Texas legislators have now filed more than a dozen bills that, to varying degrees, would forge an improved path to student achievement gains. Some of the most vocal critics of these recent proposals suggest that the current system’s detractors are attempting to dismantle accountability, lower standards and eliminate testing, but those are false alarms. There is growing agreement that we can design a better test-based accountability system that maintains high standards, costs less, makes more effective use of testing data and reduces harmful, unintended consequences that have been documented nationally as well as in Texas. Research definitively shows that these negative effects — including excessive focus on test-taking skills; outright cheating and manipulation of the test-taking process; reduced student effort, withdrawal and lower self-expectations; dampened intrinsic motivation to learn; and lower graduation rates — are exacerbated when high stakes are attached to test scores and are most detrimental for the lower-performing schools and student subgroups at greatest risk.

We have over-invested in testing (as if it was some kind of “magic bullet”) and under-invested in other tools for educational improvement. We need multidimensional measures of student achievement that recognize the many types and areas of learning linked to students’ educational and career success. We have clung to stereotypes about technical education that have stymied our efforts to support students’ preparation for high-demand occupations, and which new research suggests may have contributed to our nation’s loss of well-paying, middle-skill jobs to our global competitors. And test scores will be more effective tools for addressing student learning deficits and promoting accountability if we focus on their use for diagnostic purposes. Resources should follow their effective use in improving educational outcomes, for example, using test score data with proven models for measuring changes in students’ individual learning trajectories and rewarding real gains.

The reason that proponents of the current flawed system do not cite any credible research that supports a causal link between this type of aggressive, test-based accountability system and student improvement is that it does not exist. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University stated it well: “The notions of standards and accountability have become synonymous with mandates for student testing that are unconnected to policies addressing the quality of teaching, the allocation of resources, or the nature of schooling. Tests are asked to take on burdens of decision-making and of instructional improvement, which they are not designed to carry and are not capable of accomplishing.”

Carolyn Heinrich is the Sid Richardson Professor of Public Affairs, affiliated professor of economics and director of the Center for Health and Social Policy at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs.