Do Higher State Test Scores in Texas Make for Better High School Outcomes?
Making schools accountable through state testing was the pre-eminent educational reform of the 1990s. Thirty-nine states now administer some form of performance-based assessment; 24 states attach stakes to their tests; and 40 states use tests scores for school accountability purposes (Stecher and Barron, 1999). Proponents argue that using student scores on curriculum-based tests as a measure of school effectiveness encourages teachers to teach the curriculum. It sets a minimum standard on which schools can be judged; and it quantifies school “quality” in a way that parents and politicians can easily understand. By setting student improvement goals for schools, the state can motivate school personnel to reach continuously higher, while also identifying those schools unwilling or unable to meet the prescribed goals.
Critics argue that such testing does not promote “real” improvements in student learning. Rather, teachers and principals are motivated to meet “standards” by teaching the test. Instead of creating an improved learning environment, these crude forms of assessment may reduce opportunities to learn higher-order skills particularly for low-income students (McNeil amd Valenzuela, 1999). Critics also claim that state testing increases disadvantaged students' probability of dropping out by forcing students to repeat grades (Haney, 1999; 2000; Shrag, 2000).
The most visible state-testing program is in Texas. The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) is a battery of state tests given every spring to all students in public schools in grades three to eight and again in grade ten, where passing it serves as a requirement for high school graduation. Schools are evaluated both on the percentage of all of their students passing the TAAS and on the percentage of their low-income and minority students passing. Rewards for doing well and sanctions for doing poorly are both implicit and explicit. Schools that perform well relative to state norms are given an “exemplary” designation and financial bonuses to spend on pet projects. Schools that do poorly are given an “inadequate” designation. "Inadequate" schools get new management if they do not improve by the following year. Designations are widely publicized, so parents know how their children’s school rates. Since designations take into account the proportion of disadvantaged students and the proportion of African-American and Latino students in a school, being exemplary in a poor or largely-minority school may mean a lower pass rate than in an all-white or high-income school.