State senators took turns publicly condemning Texas' student assessment system — the implementation of which one lawmaker called a "colossal failure" — at a Tuesday Education Committee meeting.
They had wide-ranging questions for officials from the Texas Education Agency and Pearson, the private company that holds a $468 million test-development contract with the state, on topics from the exam-scoring process to the tests' accuracy in measuring student comprehension.
"Either the teachers and the schools are doing a poor job of teaching the curriculum or you all are incorrect that these tests are accurate tests," said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the committee's chairman, pressing for an explanation of students' low passing rates. "Which is it?"
Discussion also focused on whether the exams should be used in the state's school accountability system, what value they hold if other standardized tests like the SAT or ACT are the preferred measures for college admission, and whether they appropriately relate to the experiences of the economically-disadvantaged minority students who make up the majority of children in Texas public schools.
"I guess the notion is that the testing is probably not as bad as the way we use the testing," said Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.
Walter Sherwood, the president of Pearson's state assessment services, said it was difficult to reach a simple conclusion about the effectiveness of teachers based on student performance on the exams, which he said could be affected by a variety of factors. He said it was possible that a student might not reach the passing standard on a given test, but could be on track to pass future tests because of quality instruction.
"So it's not so much that they're not being taught well, or they were not given the opportunities to learn," he said, "it's that they're just not there yet and they need ... additional time or resources or attention."
Since last spring's transition to the new assessment system, enacted by lawmakers in 2009, backlash from parents and educators against the number of new exams and their connection to high school graduation requirements has spurred momentum for reform.
Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, said the new exams hadn't served the purpose promised two sessions ag0 — and that lawmakers should consider whether they had "set our students and our teachers up for failure in the way this was designed."
"What we were told was that this was actually going to make more sense because it was going to align with the current curriculum for our students," she said. "We've got a colossal failure on our hands in terms of the way that it's been rolled out and also in terms of whether it's truly achieving what we hope it will achieve."
Patrick, who served on the conference committee that designed the new law's final language in 2009, acknowledged that many lawmakers who voted for it are now unhappy with it.
"As I’ve said from day one, if we have fouled this up we need to get it right," he said.
Lawmakers were not hearing testimony Tuesday on specific reform legislation. Patrick said he wanted the hearing to be an information-gathering session for a future measure, which could take the form of a floor amendment to another education bill.
Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican who has proposed his own testing reforms in Senate Bill 225, said that if the committee took that route it would be "just inviting a lot of no votes," because senators would not have the opportunity to properly review the language.
Patrick said that would not be the case.
"So you are not going to roll it out on the floor sight unseen?" Seliger asked.
"That is not the way I operate," Patrick said.