When it comes to high-stakes testing, Texas lawmakers have so far focused most of their attention on high school students. But as more than 3 million students across the state begin to take standardized exams this week, some members of the Legislature are examining the plight of younger test-takers.
The state’s ninth- and 10th-graders currently await consensus from legislators on key proposals in the House and Senate that would reduce the number of exams they must take to graduate from 15 to as few as five. But several measures in the Legislature, some of which the House Public Education Committee will hear on Tuesday, could also affect testing for students in elementary and middle school.
“At the elementary level, we've got a tremendous amount of stress over the way the test is structured and administered,” said state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, a Coppell Republican who is on the committee.
Adding to the uncertainty for fifth- and eighth-graders in particular is another question: whether a lacking performance on the current exams will prevent them from moving on to the next grade level. Under state law, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams must certify that lawmakers have allocated enough money toward remedial tutoring in the education budget to allow schools to keep back students who fail their state exams under a ban on so-called social promotion.
Williams has yet to announce his decision on that matter, though agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said Monday he may reach one as soon as this week.
Elementary and middle school students currently take a total of 17 state exams before high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, plus there are additional exams in science or writing or social studies, depending on the grade. At the urging of some parents and educators, several lawmakers have proposed either eliminating testing in lower grades altogether or to dropping the number of tests to as few as 10. To avoid the risk of losing federal funding, both proposals would require a waiver under No Child Left Behind’s accountability requirements.
Ratliff’s House Bill 2836 would address an issue specific to younger test-takers — the amount of time they must spend sitting still to complete their state exams, which now have four-hour time limits. Ratliff said that teachers, test developers and administrators told him that “four hours is just entirely too long for a third-, fourth-, fifth-grader to sit and concentrate and do their best work.”
His bill would require exams at lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students could complete them in two hours or less. It would also remove the time limit so that struggling students could take the rest of the day to complete the test if needed.
Ratliff’s bill would also would reduce the amount of testing in lower grades to the extent possible under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by eliminating writing exams in fourth and seventh grades and the social studies exam in eighth grade.
But for parents concerned about the effects of high-stakes testing on young children, that is not enough, said Susan Kellner, the vice president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a statewide grassroots organization.
“The issue is that No Child Left Behind requires 14 tests between the grades of three through eight, and really that limits what these bills can do,” she said.
Some lawmakers, like state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, are attempting to get around those requirements by passing laws that would require state education officials to request a waiver from the federal government.
Under House Bill 866, by Huberty, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.
“If you have a child that is an AP student in sixth grade, in fifth grade if they did very, very well on the exam, we aren’t going to make that child take a standardized test on information that they're not even learning in the classroom,” said Huberty, who added that his bill would also free up teachers to concentrate more on the individual needs of students.
In addition to the challenge of federal requirements, efforts to change the current assessment system in grades three through eight are likely to encounter opposition from critics who question whether the state could adequately measure student achievement without yearly testing.
“Any move to reduce the testing in three through eight is unacceptable in terms of financial impact [of losing federal funding] and wrong in terms of being able to measure growth to see that all students are able to learn every year,” said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, a statewide organization of employers and local chambers of commerce that frequently advocates on education issues.
While policy gets sorted out at the Capitol, Ratcliffe said testing in school districts will continue as planned. Williams' testimony before lawmakers has indicated that he would be unlikely to push for more money for remedial instruction for students who don't pass state standardized tests. He has taken a different approach than his predecessor, Robert Scott, who said that he would not sign off on the budget unless the 2013 Legislature restored funding to that program — praising the effectiveness virtual technology in helping teachers and students through the remedial process at a lower cost.
Williams has also suggested that decisions about large-scale funding for specialized grants like the remedial tutoring program should wait until the resolution of a lawsuit involving most Texas school districts over the way the state funds public schools.
"There are any number of good or great programs the state has been funding," he told lawmakers during a Senate hearing on the budget. "But it's prudent to see what the court is going to do."