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Guest Blog: Testimony before the TX Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability

February 25, 2016

Shirin Foroudi McMillan, Dean of College Preparation at Uplift Luna Preparatory-Secondary, delivered brief remarks as a witness at the second meeting of the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability on February 23, 2016.  The following is her testimony in its entirety.

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting public testimony today on such an important topic. My name is Shirin and I’ve been a public school educator for total of 13 years and for the last decade I’ve been at public charter schools. By way of introduction, I’m currently the Dean of College Prep at Uplift Luna, a public charter high school in Dallas. Before this role, I’ve worked in education in various capacities– I’ve taught 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th grade English, in addition to teaching courses on College and Career Readiness for 11th and 12th graders. Also, I worked as a college counselor – helping students identify and apply to postsecondary institutions. I’m also a mom – the toughest and the most well-paid teaching job ever. I’m new to Texas, though - so most of my experience comes from New York City– please don’t hold that against me.

As I see it, the purpose of standardized testing is three-fold. First, we use it to gauge student mastery. Next, we use results to determine a student’s readiness for the next level coursework at our schools or at their next stop academically. Finally – and this is the piece with which I’m most intimately familiar – standardized assessments offer easy points of comparison for outside institutions to determine whether our students are ready for their programs – except for the ever-growing number of test-optional and test-flexible colleges.

No one reason to test is more important than the other. I collaborated with other teachers and brainstormed on a list of all the tests the average college-ready student takes in Texas. We assumed this average student wanted to take the SAT and ACT a few times to benefit from colleges’ pretty standard practice of super-scoring by seating or by section. We assumed this average student is considering a state university as a real college option, so he or she would likely sit for the Texas Success Initiative (TSI) Assessment. We also assumed this average student was challenging him or herself with the most rigorous coursework available – not taking into account whether he or she passed the tests or not. Just the tests alone would take this student over 50 hours, and we didn’t even account for the amount of practice and prep that should go into each exam. (If you think back to a year-end review with a supervisor or your last interview that may have been tough, it may have felt that long – but I’m sure it wasn’t that long.)

The tests don’t all happen in the same academic year – but the preparation and practice take place largely over junior and senior years, the time when kids should probably be refocusing their attention on determining their college lists, visiting schools and completing increasingly lengthy college applications. They also happen during a time when kids are hopefully rising up in leadership roles on their campus, on sports teams and in their extracurricular and civic activities.

As it stands, our testing is heavy and redundant. The reading sections of the PSAT, the ACT/SAT, the TSI placement exam and the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) end-of-course (EOC) assessments for English II all read very similarly and I am fairly certain that’s not on accident. Obviously, standardized testing doesn’t work unless it’s standardized and translatable. For better or worse, we assess reading in pretty much the same way across the board – read this, answer these questions about it, and probably bubble something in at the end or maybe write a few sentences on it that can be graded on a very standardized rubric. We did this in New York, we do this in Texas and probably in a lot of states in between. The tests I’ve mentioned rely heavily on multiple-choice and by offering reading passages that are within two grade levels of one another, often with similar content. With an exception here or there, kids score pretty similarly on the different exams across the board. What we have learned from that is that the tests are in fact standardized, but we learn very little new information about the student from the different measures.

As a result, the tests are redundant, even though they serve slightly different purposes: it’s as if we give a test in advance of the finish line, at the finish line and just past the finish line. And whether we like it or not – by and large college admissions offices have defined the finish line for our college-going high schoolers as the SAT/ACT. Given geography and the recent changes in the SAT to match the ACT, the ACT seems the way to go: and though it’s not a fool-proof test, it’s a nationally-recognized method of assessing what all the other tests gauge too. In some ways, it’ll make the test more high stakes if we eliminate the EOCs, but it will open up the opportunity for teachers to spend more time on deeper conceptual understanding and offer students the ability to focus on the one big test instead of a seeming barrage of testing at the end of the year. Besides, most college admissions officers will tell you they rarely give a second glance to EOC scores.

Again though, I actually value tests and love a good spreadsheet full of data -- but until Texas can determine a way to test something differently or how test different skills, I don’t think we need to repeat what colleges already require of our students. I offer two solutions: eliminate the STAAR exams and replace them either with the ACT or the TSI placement exam, depending on the child’s postsecondary plans or offer some sort of portfolio or project-based assessment like the models offered in the International Baccalaureate program.

Our kids are tested every day – and usually they aren’t faced with clear-cut multiple choice decisions, yet more and more they are trained for those exams. Frankly, I wish my life included more multiple-choice options – but it doesn’t – and neither do most of the decisions professionals make daily. Thank you for your time.

The views and opinions expressed in guest blog posts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Texas Charter Schools Association.

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