“School Choice and Nationally Normed Tests”

By Donna Garner

A group of students sitting at their desks looking at their phones.

[COMMENTS FROM DONNA GARNER: Below are excerpts that I wrote three years ago; but they still apply to today’s classrooms, particularly as the Texas Legislature is considering school choice bills (e.g., SB 176 - https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/88r/billtext/pdf/sb00176i.pdf#navpanes=0 ) that wipe away the STAAR tests and replace them with nationally normed tests.

Other states are moving toward school choice also and are relying upon nationally normed tests to measure student growth.

Here is the question that legislators and most parents who want school choice are not considering:

Where is there a nationally normed test that is built upon the Type #1 fact-based, academic, observable, measurable (i.e., classical) philosophy of education?

The IOWA Test of Basic Skills and the ACT used to be trusted instruments. However, they (along with every other nationally normed test such as the SAT) have been completely taken over by Obama’s Type #2, Common Core/LGBTQ/ /SEL/CRT/social justice agenda.

Remember this age-old saying, “What gets tested gets taught.”

The Type #2 philosophy of education (subjective with an emphasis on feelings, emotions, and personal opinions) has permeated K-16 schools in our country since 2013.

Every nationally normed test that I know anything about contains test questions that are centered around the Type #2 philosophy of education.

With school choice in place and with no Type #1, objective, nationally normed test to hold both students and teachers accountable for learning/teaching, how will parents and school administrators know whether or not students are making progress? How will they know whether teachers are teaching Type #1 curriculum and teaching it well?

What troubles me is to hear parents, teachers, students, and/or legislators say that it is time to get rid of the STAAR tests completely!

I know how frustrating and anxious the STAAR tests make students, teachers, and parents feel. I taught for 33+ years in Texas classrooms, and we English / Language Arts / Reading (ELAR) teachers were held accountable by the state for our students’ learning long before the other subject areas were developed.

No matter what anybody says, “Teachers will teach whatever is tested.” It is for this reason that the STAAR tests do serve as a "measuring stick" to make sure that teachers have been teaching and students have been learning what is in the curriculum standards (TEKS).

Three of the four sets of core subject area TEKS are fact-based, academic, traditional (i.e., ELAR, Social Studies, Science). Unfortunately, the Math TEKS have some Common Core "junk" in them and are not as fact-based, academic, and traditional as are the other three subject areas.

Please give this some thought: If we did not have the STAAR tests, how would parents know that their children have learned anything at all?

Grade inflation and group projects are rampant (i.e., the “everybody gets a trophy” philosophy). Grades by themselves (without an objective, state-mandated standard) cannot be counted on because of the subjectivity of teachers.

Many teachers might easily settle for popularity rather than high standards if it were not for the "measuring stick" -- the STAAR tests -- the accountability system that holds teachers (and their students) to a measurable standard.

What if we had no such "measuring stick"? Parents might have a child who got straight A's when she was in Grade 5 only to find out in Grade 6 that the Grade 5 teacher handed out A's like candy!

With no "measuring stick," students could be way far behind with many gaps in their educational backgrounds before parents would know. What if these gaps were not revealed for several grade levels in a row? Without a "measuring stick," these gaps could easily turn into wide swaths of unlearned, unmastered knowledge and skills -- leaving the students so far behind that it might be impossible for them ever to catch up.

The good thing about the STAAR tests is that they are largely composed of fact-based questions that have right or wrong answers; these fact-based questions are not subjective based upon the evaluator’s value system. Before the question is put on the STAAR test, each question has been put through 13 different layers of question development mostly done by current Texas classroom teachers at that grade level and in that specific STAAR subject area.

Fortunately, the questions on the STAAR are not put together by a bunch of unknown test-makers who work for Common Core vendors in some far off state. The STAAR questions must be based upon the TEKS (Texas’ curriculum standards) that have been adopted by the elected members of the Texas State Board of Education after an arduous, multi-year process of countless drafts and public hearings.

Texas teachers know what the average student in their classes should know based upon the TEKS. That is why it is so wise of the Texas Education Agency to put classroom teachers on these STAAR item-approval committees. This should assure parents/teachers/students that each STAAR question comes from instructional materials tied to the TEKS.

Bottom line: If teachers will teach instructional materials each day that are closely aligned to the TEKS, then their students should do well on the STAAR tests. If teachers are not well-prepared in their field and/or if students have not done their part to master the daily classroom units, then the STAAR “measuring stick” serves as a good tool to give the student remedial help immediately before the gaps in learning become chasms!

I always ask this same question of the STAAR naysayers: “If not the STAAR as an objective measuring stick, what do you suggest?” I am still waiting on someone to offer a better solution.