Small Texas Town School Superintendent Sets Off Firestorm Over Standardized Tests

Small Texas Town School Superintendent Sets Off Firestorm Over Standardized Tests

DALLAS, Texas–Paris Independent School District Superintendent Paul Jones apparently had no idea that when he wrote an open online letter to parents slamming the Texas standardized STAAR test that it would go viral, end up on the local news and garner responses from parents as far away as Thailand.

Jones told CBS DFW that he wanted to set the record straight about the state mandated State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) that students took recently. They reported that he posted his letter onto the district’s website claiming too much emphasis is placed on standardized testing and “it’s time someone said so.”  The letter labeled the STAAR as “punitive” and “one size fits all.”

He also said to CBS 11 that “these tests do not measure the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom” and noted that Paris ISD is not “shying away from accountability or testing” but would like to measure growth as an indicator of learning.  He said, “If that student grew, the teacher did their job, the student did a great job. And that’s what we’re here to do.”

While Jones is being hailed as a hero for his blunt candor, the Dallas Morning News reported that there was a little more to the story.  For starters, the article stated that “Paris ISD is a district that has been testing challenged. It’s managed not to dip below the minimum acceptable ratings on the state accountability radar. But its students pass most of the STAAR tests at rates below the state average. While its graduation rate is high, significantly more of its graduates emerged with a minimum plan diploma than the state average. It’s not likely that the release of this year’s STAAR data scheduled for this week will change that record.”

The article also said, “So Jones’ letter could be viewed as a combination of ‘sour grapes’ and the sort of pep talk a coach gives a team that’s just taken a bad loss: You worked hard, you can be proud of what you accomplished.”

Jones is in favor of accountability and wants to see a system that measures growth, according to the article which also pointed out, this is far from the only superintendent to “take a shot at the state system.”

Standardized high-stakes testing has been a majorly sore subject that goes far beyond the Texas borders. Nationwide, the opt-out movement largely galvanized the Common Core states in protest of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness College and Careers (PARCC).

Interestingly, the Dallas Morning News article mentioned another STAAR critic as Hudson ISD Superintendent Mary Ann Whiteker, a proponent of the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) “New Vision” also known as Mission: School Transformation. She is also on the School Transformation Network Design Team.

On her district’s website, Whiteker shared that her district has embraced the five key goals of the TASA visioning document: “digital learning, 21st Century learning standards (academic and career), multiple forms of assessment, accountability that is not focused on one state test, and transforming our schools into a 21st Century learning organization.” 

Whiteker’s impassioned website housed update letter to the families in her district follows up on the new vision declaration she posted in 2012.  In it she stated that Hudson ISD was on a journey to focus on quality learning rather than a test driven system that is demoralizing to students and staff. 

She also stated that the recent STAAR exam results “should be considered benchmarks, not the end-all to learning for the year” because the tests don’t reflect the quality of teaching or learning in our classrooms.” 

Whiteker raised one major problem with teaching to the test: all emphasis is placed on that one outcome.  This brewing saga in public K-12 education originally spiked under the last administration’s Fed Led Ed mandate, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  It also birthed docudramas on student high-stakes testing burnout like “The Race to Nowhere” and it played its role the proliferation of charter schools and the rise of Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst.

However, the difficulty with transformative education visions like TASA’s is the language. It’s written in buzzwords that sound good, appeal to the emotions but don’t necessarily offer anything concrete.  For example, the chapter of the document called “Transformed Systems for Making the Vision Reality” lists as ways to bring the vision to life “schools that are kid-friendly and safe, with multiple and varied learning spaces incorporating state-of-the-art technology, and possessing the capacity, in alliance with the community, to meet the needs of all children and youth.”

Does that mean schools are not kid-friendly now, although the state-of-the-art technology portion of the 21st Century order has been filled in schools and who is this community that schools are in alliance? 

In a Fed Led Ed world, community can mean anything from the traditional definition to community-based schools, a tenet of “Promise Schools,” part of the American Federation of Teacher’s “Reclaiming the Promise” schools which Breitbart Texas has reported on. It’s a push to transform public schools into 24/7 community hubs.

The TASA new visioning document also states another criteria as “schools that are staffed by competent, committed adults who are supported and appreciated, and who understand their first priority is the children they serve.”

So, does this imply that schools don’t have competent, committed adults now?  Then it references “schools with leaders who serve, support, and ensure that student engagement is and remains the first focus.”

Student engagement  is also one of the mantras of Fed Led Ed.  As the Common Core states words should have taught Texas, words like “rigor” and “robust” are have little meaning.  Unfortunately, the problem with this emotionally charged language is the lack of substance.  Until definitive versus connotative action plans are fleshed out, the taxpaying public is left with only blurred visions wrapped in feel-good imperatives.  

Meanwhile, TASA affiliations include Catapult Learning,a Common Core provider, and Engage! Learning, which proudly announced it is aligned to House Bill 5 (HB5), the legislation that radically altered Texas high school graduation requirements.

Breitbart Texas examined the intricacies of HB5, the college and career readiness redo that was designed to offer more choice yet disarmingly mirrors the same national standards for college and career readiness as in the Common Core. The state’s NCLB waiver also brings Texas into more alignment on accountability with federal mandates.

No doubt, most will agree that teaching to the test is a huge problem. Unfortunately, public education seems to be on an endless mission to seek out solutions that will propel learning into the 21st Century with a little Zen feel to boot.  Thus, a real clear vision with an understandable action plan would be very useful about now, especially for the average taxpayer who ultimately will be footing that vision.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter at OutOfTheBoxMom.