State testing commission meets for the second time, hears from public

The Commission on Next Generation Assessments  and Accountability met at the Capitol in Austin on Tuesday, Feb 23. The commission heard from three invited panels and then took a little over an hour to hear public testimony.

The meeting kicked off with the appointment of commission member Stacy Hock to serve as vice-chair of the commission. Next, the commission heard from the outgoing chair of the House Public Education Committee and author of the bill that created to the commission, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen). The first panel of invited witnesses consisted of Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes, and Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission Andres Alcantar.

Commissioner Morath spoke about the foundational nature of the state’s curriculum standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), both within our education system generally and as they relate to the assessment system. He also spoke about the role of the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRs) within the TEKS and how Texas was first out of the gate nationally when it first developed the CCRs. He also spoke on the different levels of cut scores as they related to college readiness. Morath generated the most reaction, however, with his closing remark about transitioning away from the current assessment system to a system of small, formative assessments given throughout the year. Morath expressed that he envisioned such an assessment system as being most effectively delivered in a digital format, from which data could be pulled at the end of the year to create a summative result without the need for an additional summative test. Such a system, if correctly implemented, could address many of the issues various stakeholders have with the current system.

Commissioner Paredes spoke next on the Closing the Gaps initiative which began in 2000 and just completed in 2015, plus the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s new initiative known as “60/30,” which is just kicking off and seeks to raise the percentage of the eligible Texas population with a post-secondary degree of certification to 60 percent by the year 2030, slightly less than double the current percentage. Paredes also talked to the commission about the TSI, the Texas-specific college entrance exam that came out the Texas Success Initiative. The TSI is based directly on the CCRs and has the benefit of pinpointing very granular areas where a student may be lacking skills, which can greatly cut down on time spent remediating students. Finally, Paredes pointed out that despite the benefits of having the CCRs, they should only be looked to as a proxy because the truth is that whether or not a student is college ready is entirely the purview of the college faculty teaching freshman level classes, and that there is a wide range of rigor in the reality that isn’t necessarily reflected in the standards.

The second panel consisted of Matt Lisk, Executive Director of College Readiness Assessments, College Board, and John Clark, Lead Account Strategist, ACT, Inc. Client Relations. They spent their time extolling the virtues of and answering questions about the respective companies’ testing products.

The third panel included Karen Rue, Superintendent, Northwest ISD and Dawson Orr, Department Chair, Southern Methodist University, both speaking on behalf of the Texas High Preforming Schools Consortium. They, too, began their presentations by referencing the fundamental nature of the TEKS, but from the perspective that the sheer breadth of TEKS precludes covering them at any depth. The pair spent most of their time trying to describe and convince the commissioners and lawmakers present of the value of what they termed “community-based accountability.” While the promises and high-level theory of such a model sounded very promising to many in the audience and some on the dais, there was definitely some skepticism on the part of some of the commissioners and lawmakers as to the feasibility of what they view as essentially a system of self-rating.

ThinkstockPhotos-111939554Finally, the panel heard from roughly 20 witnesses during the public testimony portion of the agenda. By and large these testifiers were individual parents and educators. They gave the commission a much needed window into some of the shortcomings of the current system where theory meets reality. Of particular impact was testimony about the true logistics of teaching to the test. Issues mentioned included problems like the 26-line first draft writing test that in no way reflects how anyone in the real world writes. Another concern was the 10-line short answer section where students find it very difficult to completely answer the highly valued questions in the limited and rigidly enforced space allotted. One teacher testified that an example of her teaching to the test was to spend time working with her students on writing small so that they could fit more into the box. Another testifier brought up the effect that the vast number of multiple choice questions was having on a student’s ability to synthesize original thought from whole cloth, without being presented multiple choice options . Parents often pointed out how otherwise successful hardworking and sometimes exceptional kids were having their self-worth and futures crushed under the weight of repressive and unforgiving testing. The witnesses described that particularly for those students with learning disorders, those who suffered from severe test anxiety, or those who were part of the large and growing population of English Language Learners,  the test was much less a measure of their subject area knowledge and more a reflection of their disabilities or circumstance. The commission uniformly thanked those who provided public testimony for adding a much needed perspective to the conversation.

Commission meetings are live-streamed as they are happening and available for viewing from an archive about a week later. The most current meeting is not yet available in the archive for viewing but we will post a link in this post when it is. Future meeting dates for the commission include: Wednesday, March 23, 2016; Wednesday, April 20, 2016; Wednesday, May 25, 2016; and Wednesday, July 27, 2016.

You can read more on the Commission for Next Generation Assessments and Accountability at https://tea.texas.gov/2804commission.aspx

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