Deshotel predicts heartache, pain from new testing standards

Texas State Rep. Joe Deshotel, District 22

Texas State Rep. Joe Deshotel predicts “a higher failure rate, and more pressure on the students, and more pressure on the teachers” as state mandated testing becomes more rigorous, even though students have been hard pressed to meet the previous benchmarks that until now had been accepted in school districts throughout Southeast Texas. “There’s going to be so much grief, so much heartache, so much pain.”

The STAAR test (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) is given to students in grades 3-8 and to students taking high school level courses in Algebra I, English I and II, U.S. History and Biology. In turn, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) assigns accountability ratings to each of the state’s school districts, charter schools, and individual campuses based on student achievement, student progress, efforts to close the achievement gap and postsecondary readiness. In the 2014-15 school year, 10 of Beaumont Independent School District’s 26 campuses failed to meet accountability standards, and three of Port Arthur Independent School District’s 13 campuses failed to the meet the state standard. Additionally, students not passing their secondary level STAAR tests are precluded from advancing and even receiving their diploma, in many cases.

And this year, Texas is upping the ante. According to information from the TEA, performance standard minimums will be heightened in the 2015-16 testing cycle, and STAAR test material will be updated to reflect additional standards of accountability.

“This STAAR deal is like a train wreck that’s happening,” Deshotel told The Examiner. “It’s just a pressure cooker right now. What bothers me about it is it’s so unnecessary. It’s not required by the federal government. It’s not. It’s not No Child Left Behind – other states comply with that without all these tests.

“The fail rate was already really high on the STAAR test and now we’re increasing the score. We already weren’t passing – now we’re going to raise the rate? Why would you do that?”

Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA) reports that only five states in the U.S. require students pass as many end-of-course standardized tests as Texas. This year, Texas students will need to pass five end-of-course STAAR exams; in prior years, that number was 15.

“All school has become is these tests,” Deshotel lamented. “It’s just crazy. It’s not fair, and it’s not what education is about.”

Deshotel said that an assessment tool of some kind, such as a standardized test, is necessary to evaluate student progress, but the tool has not been wielded as well as it could be.

“We should use these tests as assessment tools to know where student weak points and strong points are to develop a curriculum and things like that,” he said. “What we should not do is use these tests to punish students and teachers.”

Texas American Federation of Teachers spokesperson Rob D’Amico said students and teachers alike are indeed penalized for failing to meet state testing standards.

“Usually they do advance the students, but the key thing is the punishment attributed to the school district and campuses,” he said. “These assessments should be used to identify what students need help in.

“What’s been happening is a movement on the federal level, even the president came out and said there is too much emphasis on testing … nevertheless there is a pilot program in Texas that uses some of these test scores for teacher evaluation.

“Some districts take those scores into account in a big way.”

Texas AFT president Louis Malfaro agreed with Deshotel’s assessment that testing has a purpose, but not the purpose currently being implemented.

“We’re not against the test,” Malfaro told The Examiner. “We think it should be used appropriately.

“We think tests have a purpose – it’s a way on a certain day to plumb the well and see how we’re doing. If we can get back to that place with assessment, people are going to feel better about the work they’re doing in the classroom.”

Currently the teaching profession is experiencing a drop in incoming professionals just as longtime educators are exiting the field. Malfaro speculates that much of the dissatisfaction stems from the decline in the art of teaching as one-size-fits-all standardized teaching encroaches on educators’ ability to instruct their students in a manner that is both effective and understandable to their audience – an audience of pupils known to the teacher but not the nameless faces and names dictating instruction from afar.

“We are starting to see teacher shortages breaking out across the state,” he said. “This is coinciding with stepping up emphasis on high-stakes testing, linking to teachers deciding to leave the classroom.”

BISD alone is in need of roughly 100 highly qualified educators, according to district chief operations officer Robert Calvert. Nakisha Myles Burns, special assistant to the superintendent of BISD, said that although district administrators are aware of the stress associated with both taking and administering the STAAR test, there is little to be done on a local level to alleviate the burden.

“Right now what you have is the district is regulated by the state; we really fall under their charge,” she said. “If it’s mandated (like STAAR exams are), we don’t have the option to opt out of it.

“This is a hot topic. We hear you, but we’re bound by the Texas Education Agency.”

Burns said that BISD has no plan right now to utilize STAAR test scores to conduct teacher evaluations. However, according to Malfaro, that’s the trend across the state.

“TEA has been moving forward with a new teacher evaluation tool that does use test data for teacher evaluations,” he said. “Local school districts have been allowed to decide if they want to use it or not.”

Campuses and school districts statewide, however, are judged by the test numbers. Due to BISD’s failure to meet minimum testing standards at 10 of its campuses, those campuses were deemed “Improvement Required,” which is at minimum a fiscal burden to the school district. Multiple years of Improvement Required designation could lead to campus reconstitution, which has proved very costly and time-consuming for BISD in the past, Burns noted.

“It’s nothing to be taken lightly,” she said.

Malfaro said his organization is far from taking it lightly, either. Money is not the only matter at stake here; he said the pool of quality educators will diminish, as well, as long as they are not allowed to teach students but rather serve as glorified test administrators. What’s more, as teachers cry out for relief, they are disenchanted by the lack of backing from their local and state officials in addressing the problem.

“When we ask teachers who are leaving the profession why they are leaving, the first thing they mention is feeling a lack of support,” Malfaro said. “A part of that is a perception question, too. Teachers used to be revered for the work they did. Teachers are still at the top of the heap – they are some of the most respected people in the community. Still, more and more teachers are being scapegoated by politicians – ‘We need to get rid of the bad teachers,’ and stuff like that.

“One of the saddest things I ever hear is teachers saying they discouraged their own children from choosing teaching as a profession.

“Teaching is a tough job, but it’s also a great job. We have to do more to get out of their way and let them teach. We have to have more faith in our teachers.”

Sebrina Dollar, a 10-year veteran educator who also serves as a representative for the Beaumont Teachers Association, said she hears a lot of complaints about the number of tests teachers are required to administer in a given school year.

“This test is ridiculous,” she said. “We lost a lot of people who are like, ‘I’m done with the test.’ I know we have a guy at my campus who started out teaching second grade, and when he was told he had to go to fourth grade, he had to go on medical leave. He had to have an ambulance come, he was that stressed about the possibility of having to deal with the test.”

Dollar said, in her personal opinion, test makers are not writing the tests so that test-takers are able to pass.

BISD’s Burns agrees that in her knowledge of standardized testing, should too many of the test-takers pass, the test changes.

“Where is public education in this?” Malfaro wants to know. “We’re adding 85,000 children every year to the Texas public school system. We’re in an unprecedented demographic explosion in our state, and there is no plan to educate these students.

“You’re not going to get a fatter pig by weighing it more and more. You have to put something in to get something out.

“We’ve taken test accountability in Texas about as far as we’re going to get it.”

Deshotel said he plans on introducing legislation that will propel student achievement assessment to the next level.

“I’ll be working on legislation to remove the high stakes nature of these tests and to make sure we use it as an assessment tool,” he said. “We need to take the pressure off the students, take the pressure off the teacher. … It makes it hard to learn when all you’re emphasizing is, ‘Nothing matters more than this test.’”

According to Deshotel, there is more to education than just a once-a-year exam.

“Accountability is very important,” he said. “But we can’t put that above learning. You can’t have a good learning environment if all you have is this test. It’s not a necessary element to success. It sort of creeped in, we experimented with it, and it’s clearly not working.

“We’ve tied too much to it, and I think its time to move away from it.”

Deshotel said that he has been in talks with state officials in the legislature and in the governor’s office, and he is hopeful bi-partisan support will allow for changes in Texas standardized testing in the coming years. According to him, what will ensure victory, however, will not be state support, but rather support from parents and stakeholders making their voices heard to their state representatives and officials.

“Contact legislators, call senators and representatives, write the governor,” he said. “It’s going to take that for real change to occur.”

In the interim, Deshotel offered words of encouragement to educators battling in the trenches as test time approaches.

“Just hang in there,” he said. “I think there’s some significant changes coming, but I feel come 2017, we will see a rollback in this. I know that seems like a long way off, but we’re already late in 2015.

“I think the pendulum has swung as far as it’s going to swing in the direction it has gone, and now it’s going back in the other direction. I think we’re going to see more emphasis in the classroom on teaching, not on a test.

“I think we’re going to see some changes being made. The move is here; the time is now.”

Burns also suggests making opinions known to the TEA, as the entity responsible for regulating standardized testing. The TEA Office of General Inquiries can be reached at (512) 463-9290 or via e-mail at generalinquiry [at] tea [dot] texas [dot] gov. TEA Department of Assessment and Accountability Associate Commissioner of Student Assessment Division Criss Cloudt can be reached at (512) 463-9536 or via e-mail at student [dot] assessment [at] tea [dot] texas [dot] gov.

“This isn’t working,” Deshotel summed up. “We need to go back and change this – now.”