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Op-Ed: The high stakes of being a third grader

Dear School District A:

Your third-grade students performed well on the STAAR test. Here’s more money.


Dear School District B:

Your third-grade students struggled on STAAR. You get nothing.


That’s outcomes-based funding in a nutshell, and it’s the latest trendy policy proposal being considered by lawmakers in Austin.

Let’s be very clear: Under these proposals, the state would partially fund our schools based on the performance of 8-year-olds on a single high-stakes test given on a single day.

And one of those tests — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) — is facing increasing scrutiny at the Capitol and across the state. Texas MonthlyThe New York Times, and other media shined a light on multiple academic research studies revealing that the STAAR is actually measuring students against standards for readers one or two grade levels higher than the test-takers.

The name “outcomes funding,” and other equally rosy-sounding labels used by proponents — like performance-based funding, or incentives-based funding — are misleading. A more appropriate name, based on what is being measured, rewarded and punished, is “test-based funding.” Whatever you call it, this type of funding mechanism would weaken Texas public schools and students — especially those who need the most help.

The theory behind test-based funding is that school leaders, teachers and students will respond to a financial incentive to improve student performance. It implies schools already have the resources they need to meet the needs of all students. Yet the unfolding school finance debate in Austin surely suggests otherwise. The proof? House Bill 3, which infuses public schools with significant additional state revenue, primarily targeted toward our neediest students, passed the Texas House by a 148-1 margin.

It’s true that outcomes incentives may work in business. They may even work in higher education settings where states provide funding based on course completion. But outcomes-based funding policy in the K-12 arena, where students’ achievement levels on a single standardized test are used to fund schools, is almost nonexistent. And, where it’s been tried, it’s largely failed.

Arizona passed legislation in 2017 awarding additional funding to the top 10% of its schools based on performance on math and reading standardized tests. The results after two years indicate significant inequities between wealthy and poor campuses, even though economically disadvantaged students are eligible for more money.

The Fordham Institute found that Ohio’s outcomes-based funding system, with its questionable performance metrics for bonus pay, be overhauled or scrapped.

Simply put, research has not shown that allocation of scarce resources to chase a single measure generates better outcomes than a broad measure of accountability. The evidence just isn’t there. Texas voters overwhelmingly reject it, too.

In January, Raise Your Hand Texas polled likely 2020 Texas voters, asking, “Do you support or oppose increases in public school funding tied to student performance on state standardized tests, where higher test scores mean more money for a school campus?”

Seventy-eight percent of respondents opposed test-based funding. Whether in a poll or on election day, that level of response is known as a landslide.

Our schools should not be funded based on the performance of a third grader on one day in May, especially on a test with as many trouble signs as STAAR. The state’s school finance system is not and should not be punitive. It should not create a culture of winners and losers. All Texas students deserve a fair shot, through an adequate and equitable school finance system.

Rather than dwelling on unproven, unpopular funding approaches based on a possibly flawed high-stakes test, the state should fund programs that use tools to benchmark and track student needs and growth. This allows a more personalized, data-driven model of instruction, and that’s a meaningful way to achieve better outcomes for all Texas students.


Director of government relations, Raise Your Hand Texas




Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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Analysis: Texans Hate Standardized Tests, but Govern by the Results

The best way to improve public education in Texas? Cut the number of standardized tests students have to take, according to a February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. That answer came in ahead of increased funding, vouchers, higher pay for teachers, incentives for prospective teachers, grading of schools, expanded pre-k, more charter schools and more online earning.

Texans really, really hate those tests. They are also deeply unhappy with the state’s school finance system — particularly the (majority) part of it that’s funded by property taxes.

It’s easy to go in circles on education, hoping for better information about how the students and schools are doing while at the same time deploring the pressure of the tests that — in an ideal situation — would be providing just that information.

In an “ask me anything” session conducted by the Tribune on Facebook this week, the conversation turned to testing — and quickly revealed some of the anger and frustration about the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam. That echoed Kaitlin Barnes, a fifth-grade teacher from Houston who started off a column in TribTalk a week ago by saying the test should’ve been blocked under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment; that’s the one that bars cruel and unusual punishment.

It’s a good week for the flare-up: Kids across the state are taking the tests, with another round (for a different set of students) coming up next month.

Intentionally or not, Texas legislators piled on the political messages for this time of year, scheduling those tests in the same part of the calendar when home and other property owners are getting their annual assessment notices.

As this sample shows, the test is hard. Many detractors, like Barnes, acknowledge the intent even while they’re hating on STAAR.

It makes sense to test students, to see how they’re coming along. And it makes sense for the state to test students and schools, to see if the money spent on public education is actually resulting in a more educated public. It’s hard to tell if a “B” grade in El Paso is the same as a “B” in Tyler — whether the schools in every part of the state are educating kids. That’s the reason for giving the same test everywhere — to get comparable grades.

It also turns out to be one of the best ways to start an argument, whether the test in question is STAAR or one of its predecessors. Teachers regularly complain that the content of the tests doesn’t properly match up with what they’re teaching — that they end up teaching kids what will be on the state’s tests instead of what they would be teaching them otherwise. Angry parents have gone to court to try to stop STAAR.

The accountability attached directly and indirectly to the tests, sometimes for perfectly understandable reasons, produces unreasonable pressures that trickle down from the state to school districts, to principals, to teachers and to students. From students to parents, who are sometimes also known as voters, who talk to their school boards and legislators.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

The cycle is reflected in legislative (and gubernatorial) efforts to limit increases in local property taxes and to make changes to the property appraisal system. That’s just a herd of elected officials trying to make angry constituents happy, i.e., doing what they’re supposed to be doing in a representative democracy.

And it’s reflected in legislative efforts to trim the frequency and the pain of statewide tests, efforts that are tempered by a fear that testing is the only way for the state to know whether the schools around the state — imagine the best one, and also the worst one — are educating Texas kids.

Testing is a big business, too, with contract problemsoperational snafuspolicy reversals — even storm warnings.

The other side of the coin — accountability — was also evident as the kids were sweating through their exams this week. National test results show Texas and the nation stagnating in academic achievement. The state is still failing when it comes to bringing scores for Hispanic and black students in line with those for white students.

Education policymakers are working on it, promising improvement.

They know that Texans, for all the justified groaning about tests, still want to see the results.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: ROSS RAMSEY – The Texas Tribune

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