Texans want a better way to measure schools

Next year, Texas lawmakers can finally break our state’s overreliance on a single test in teaching our children and evaluating our public schools. It’s an opportunity to deliver the relief and sensible reform that parents and educators keep saying they support and want. It’s also an opportunity to move Texas towards a system that better tells us whether schools are meeting the expectations of employers and Texans.

Let’s all hope lawmakers rise up by that moment.

Our current system of accountability depends heavily on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, better known as STAAR. In fact, STAAR performance is the only variable used to rate Texas elementary and middle schools in the state’s AF system of grading campuses. This system defines success too narrowly and puts enormous pressure on children.

Texans know that a single test is an inadequate measure. In a Texas School Alliance scholarly poll of Democratic, Republican and Independent voters in Texas earlier this year, 55% of all voters said they opposed STAAR being the sole determinant of certain school rankings, with just 26% supporting it . In addition, 54% of all voters opposed the AF school rating system for elementary and junior high schools.

Calls for a broader accountability system also came from more than 15,000 Texans who participated in talks and polls sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas last year, whose recent report, Measure What Matters, stated, “We strongly believe that our students are more than a test in a day.”

STAAR is not our only way of measuring schools, as any teacher would tell you. Teachers also know that success can and should be measured by graduation from high school, a job with a decent salary, entry into college or military service, commitment to fulfilling extracurricular activities, healthy friendships, growing confidence and curiosity, and more. These are just some of the areas we all instinctively pay attention to when measuring personal success.

Teachers often hear from former students (or their parents) who have reached various milestones in life and thank those teachers for believing in them and encouraging them to pursue their dreams. These are the types of trophies that educators value. Teachers are professionals who skillfully apply methods aimed at bringing each student closer to their full potential every day. Unfortunately, some of this important work is difficult to measure in real time.

Texas needs to define success in a way that better reflects the true purpose of the school. Other states have begun using valid, reliable indicators in addition to state tests to provide a more complete view of student performance. Attendance rates, pre-kindergarten enrollments, teacher surveys, and extracurricular participation can all help us determine if schools are performing well.

At least, that’s what we’re hearing from a key consumer of public education — the employers who look to our public schools to prepare their future workforce. Business coaching industry executives recently told Forbes the importance of 15 “soft skills” such as empathy, creative problem solving and observation that are important in prospective hires. A metric like extracurricular attendance is likely to tell us more about whether a school is equipping its students with these vital skills than the STAAR test.

The problem is not the STAAR alone. This is how the state uses the STAAR. There is an important role for the STAAR (or any form of assessment) to inform instruction and monitor student progress. While the STAAR can help measure a school’s success, we also need other metrics.

The question now is whether our elected leaders will listen to voters’ calls for a more intuitive system of accountability. We are holding our state and our students back by clinging to the notion of the past that tests, and only tests, can tell us if students are learning and schools are functioning. No effective education policy has ever tested its way to prosperity. Our students will enter a world and an economy far more complex than the simplicity of our current system of accountability.

Now is the time for lawmakers who want to measure our schools more accurately. They have a full term in office ahead of them, and significant public opinion on their side. All we need is the will to do something better for our students and their future.

Brian Woods is Superintendent of Northside ISD and President of the Texas School Alliance, which represents the largest school districts in Texas. HD Chambers is the new executive director of the Texas School Alliance. You wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.

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