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Helping students make the grade

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In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act with bipartisan support. Under the law, schools are expected to have all students pass their state’s standardized tests by 2014.

For Texas students, the standardized test is now called STAAR. Our state as a whole is not making the grade. A lot of people have different opinions on what can help Texas schools measure up, but the state, teachers and researchers all agree testing may not be the answer.

More than a decade ago, when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, Texas schools passed with flying colors because the bar was set much lower.

More than half could fail and still meet the performance standards. Ten years later, the higher bar means nearly 90 percent of students must pass the test.

Debbie Ratcliffe is Texas Education Agency’s Director of Communications. She’s sat in countless board meetings while members decide curriculum and tests. These tough decisions affect all of our students.

“The problem is the requirements are rising at such a fast pace now that it’s hard for schools to keep up, even if they’re making progress,” she said. “The 100 percent goal requirements are good to have, but it’s hard for us to meet that because they are required and we want to serve every child. That means not only serving the gifted but also the child who arrives not able to speak a word of English.”

The law now has our schools in a tough predicament.

Researchers at the University of Texas question the consequences of standardized tests, saying the intentions were good, but not well thought out.

“When this passed, there was a smiley face beside No Child Left Behind that said ‘This is going to create equality, but 20 years later, our schools are no better situations than they were,” UT Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning Julian Vasquez Heilig said.

Vasquez said tests should be used to gauge how a student is doing and help them get better, not hold them back.

“The bottom line is accountability. High stakes testing doesn’t work. We cannot test our way to equality,” he said.

And when a school fails to meet adequate yearly progress several years in a row, there are repercussions. They range from free tutoring for students to issuing vouchers that allow students to transfer to better-performing schools. They can also include replacing the entire school’s staff or even closing the school completely.

School forums bring communities together to discuss the impact of state testing, national standards and the effect on our students.

“The burden falls on the students in the school. They’re always trying to meet some measure that’s a moving target and they know their institution they go to is about to be shut down if they don’t do well and that’s not fair for the kid,” High school teacher Patrick Youngblood said.

Some would say it’s not fair for the school.

Most experts agree that 11 years is a long time for an act of education reform to go untouched, but with the election season upon us, change may not come soon enough.

Each state has the option to request a waiver from Congress to bypass No Child Left Behind Laws. Currently, Texas has not decided to request a waiver, but TEA says that option is still on the table.

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