Texas State Capitol
Texas State Capitol. Photo by Daniel Mayer.
Rep. Mike Villarreal

Like so many parents, I’m dismayed that the state’s standardized testing regime has taken over our classrooms.  Last spring the state began implementing the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) program, which requires annual testing for students from third grade through their senior year in high school.  High school students are now required to take up to 15 exams in order to graduate.  Some local school districts are devoting more than 20% of instructional days to testing.

Behind these figures there are countless students who are at risk of tuning out, given the mind-numbing nature of testing drills, benchmarking, and testing days. My daughter Bella is curious, and bright, and has always enjoyed school. This is how she describes her experience with testing in her third grade classroom:

“We had to sit for like five, six or seven hours. I finished my test in two hours and I couldn’t even read a book. My legs fell asleep. They didn’t let me read until after lunch. I checked my work five times. We didn’t have recess or P.E. (physical education class).”

Texas State Capitol
Texas State Capitol. Photo by Daniel Mayer.

The good news is that change is on the way this legislative session.  A broad, diverse coalition of business leaders, parents, and educators has come together to push the Legislature to take action.  The Texas House zeroed out funding for testing in its draft 2014-2015 budget to give it leverage against special interests who are resisting change.  This movement represents quite a turnaround for a state that put standardized testing onto the national agenda.  Some lawmakers have responded to the backlash by proposing ways to tinker with the STAAR test, but I believe that we must channel this momentum into more significant change in our testing regime.

I’ve filed House Bill 596, which reduces the high stakes nature of the STAAR program. HB 596 decreases the number of end-of-course exams that students are required to take to graduate from 15 to four, and eliminates the provision that these exams count as 15% of students’ class grades.  The legislation would also limit the total number of testing days to 10% of instructional days.

Texas education agency

In schools where students have mastered the basic skills, we want school leaders to turn their attention towards enriching learning, rather than chasing test scores.  For that reason, HB 596 would also end the requirements that test scores be used in determining schools’ “Recognized” and “Exemplary” ratings.  As Texas Education Agency (TEA) develops criteria for these ratings, my legislation would give them direction to focus more on science fair projects, for example, than science test scores, in order for a school to achieve an “Exemplary” rating.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we eliminate testing from our schools.  It’s crucial that we hold schools accountable. We need to have a system that provides parents with accurate information about the quality of education in their neighborhood schools.  Administrators and lawmakers need to be able to evaluate whether we’re maximizing our public investments. I believe that we can accomplish these goals and still bring balance back to our classrooms. It’s not too late to harness this generation of students’ love of learning.

If you’re interested to join uprising on testing reform and fair funding for education, come out tonight to the Save Texas Schools Conference at Northside ISD activity center here in San Antonio.  I’ll be leading a discussion on what it will take to achieve the change that our children deserve.

Save Texas Schools

Mike Villarreal is state representative for Texas House District 123, which includes San Antonios downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.  He serves as a member of the House Committee on Public Education and Chairs the House Committee on Investments and Financial Services.  To learn more about his work to improve education in Texas join the conversation on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @MikeVillarreal.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

The Truth About Texas, Taxes and the Budget January 2013

Proposed Spending Restrictions are Anti-Democratic January 2013

The Uncertain Future of San Antonio’s Inner City Catholic Schools January 2013

The Texas Lege: Do the Right Thing, Please January 2013

Superintendents: The Doors are Open, But Schools Are Struggling October 2012

Mike Villarreal is a former state representative and founding director of the Institute on Urban Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio.