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State achievement tests incite controversy in Texas

The Texas state achievement tests have been given annually for the past three years. Although schools were expected to post improvements in results, so far lower-income districts have fallen further behind upper-income districts. Suggested reasons for this discrepancy vary: the education commissioner claims that instructional content has not increased in difficulty to match test content, while critics counter that lower levels of school funding or unreasonably high expectations are to blame.

Some school districts are seeking legal redress from the state, arguing that the money spent on tests could be more profitably applied to ‘proven’ programs such as full-day kindergarten or after-school programming. Education analysts have also argued that standardized testing is not sensitive enough to capture year-to-year improvement. The education commissioner says that it will take time for the new system to catch on, and three years of poor test scores is not a sufficient marker of failure.

State laws impose remediation when an at-risk group does not improve or fails a portion of the state exam. So far, such remediation has not been successful, and the state House education committee chairman has voiced skepticism about the value of test-based performance metrics. Independent analysts agree: studies have shown that standardized testing may act as a spur to teachers to increase the difficulty of classroom instruction, but not that these changes can alter achievement gaps. In fact, increasing the level of difficulty may simply cause less-prepared students to fall further behind.

Texas is not the only state to struggle with implementing a standardized-test system. While many states do assess student performance and some even require a minimum score for graduation, ensuring that the test is not unduly punitive to low-income students is a problem.

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About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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