Testing regime is taking from Texas' success

To hear some folks tell it, you'd think a great movement has arisen among Texas parents to keep their kids uneducated and unemployable. If we back away from "rigorous" academic testing, their argument goes, we'll take a step backward in our drive for educational excellence in our public schools.

What's actually happening is quite the opposite - there is indeed a movement, but it's composed of what has been described as "Mad Moms" who fear that excessive testing is ruining their children's educational experience. These Mad Moms don't fear rigor - they're simply questioning how we measure it. They've reached out to their legislators, and I and many of my colleagues think they're right. Our current testing regime is only producing improvement at one thing: taking tests.

Left by the wayside are other crucial skills, such as creative problem-solving, critical thinking and technological proficiency.

For this reason, Rep. Diane Patrick and I authored a bill to reduce the onerous 15 end-of-course (EOC) exams currently required for graduation by the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) testing system down to the most important three: Algebra I, English III and Writing III. Our bills, SB 240/HB 640, also would allow the use of other proven testing measures such as scores on the SAT, ACT, career and technology certifications and licensure and similar exams to affirm success.

Other legislators have filed similar bills, including Sen. Kel Seliger, Chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee; Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, Chairman of the House Public Education Committee and Rep. Mike Villarreal.

I am well aware of measurement, accountability and testing as a member of the Senate's Education Committee, and also as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the body of elected and appointed officials that oversees the content and operation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Also known as "The Nation's Report Card," NAEP is a continuing and nationally representative measure of achievement in various subjects over time.

I wholeheartedly approve of measurement testing for just that - measurement, a way to help our students succeed.

But the current system goes well beyond simple measurement and has instead become an arbitrary, high-stakes and often punitive obstacle to graduation for some students and a hindrance to educators who must spend excessive time "teaching to the test" - mere coaching of test-taking skills - and not enough on development of analytical thinking, the kind of skill that ultimately will be most prized in the job market.

The NAEP is often trumpeted as proof that our excessive testing is working and necessary. Texas students have indeed improved on NAEP assessments in recent years. And it's often pointed out that U.S. students are still lagging behind some of their global counterparts on international equivalents to the NAEP, accompanied by dark predictions of what this means for our economy.

But at NAGB, we've reviewed research showing the way those students achieve high scores is not repetitive drilling and testing. Finland, for example, does not employ such a testing regime. Instead, that nation spends resources on great teachers. This means the rigor comes from high standards in their curriculum and the highly regarded educators who are treated with the prestige they deserve and paid for the expertise they bring to the classroom.

If we look to the East and China: Even though China ranks No. 1 in the world in an international testing equivalent to NAEP, they aren't celebrating. In fact, they are concerned that their students aren't truly learning to think. A New York Times article last year reported how China has the toughest university entrance exam in the world, yet the country's intelligentsia lament that their nation cannot produce its own Steve Jobs. As a result, they are talking about turning away from high-stakes testing . and becoming more like the United States!

What has made our nation great is creativity. It's at the heart of entrepreneurship. It's at the core of a representative democracy. Texas can do much better. We can make sure that our students have real opportunities for success.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte represents District 26, which includes parts of San Antonio and Bexar County.