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How Would Greg Abbott And Wendy Davis Use Student Test Scores?

(Photo source: Shutterstock)

This is the first in a week-long series of coordinated reports from KERA,  the Dallas Morning News, and KXAS-TV (NBC 5).  Five Days in October looks at where the leading candidates for governor stand on certain issues. 

We begin with education, and answers to a question about student test scores that was tweeted during KERA’s televised gubernatorial debate last week.

I’m an instructional technology specialist out in Rosenberg, Texas. My question for the candidates is how do they feel about the new teacher evaluation system? While test scores are certainly important they’re not the end-all-be-all. 

Squires wants to know how Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Greg Abbott would use standardized test scores to evaluate students and teachers. We asked the candidates and also got an earful from frustrated parents, teachers and students.

Luke Spears is only in fourth grade but already he dreads the lengthy, series of tests he’s required to take.

“I get really cranked up whenever I’m doing a lot of tests and I just don’t like it,” Luke said. He admits to getting anxious on test days.

Luke’s mother, waiting to pick up her son at Dallas ISD's Hexter Elementary, sees testing as helpful in finding out what students are missing. But next year, in fifth grade, Luke will be required to pass standardized tests in reading and math or he won’t be promoted. Maurie Spears thinks that goes too far.

“You’d hate for that to affect future placement without other things being considered such as anxiety or fear of testing or perhaps they just don’t test well,” she said.

Passing Tests Required for Promotion

The debate over how to test students and how to use the results has been a hot, divisive topic in the school house and the statehouse. Last year, lawmakers reduced from 15 to five the number of high-stakes tests Texas high school students need to pass to graduate. But passing certain tests is still required for promotion from fifth and eighth grades -- and to get a diploma.

Test Scores Tied to Teacher Evaluations And Pay

Increasingly, student scores are also being used to grade teacher performance. A statewide pilot program bases 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on tests.  In Dallas, 35 percent of a teacher’s salary evaluation now depends on how well students score.

The leading candidates for governor both say they want to further reduce the number of high stakes exams.  But how would they use the scores?

What The Candidates For Governor Say

We asked that question during the Sept. 30 KERA debate.

Davis said test scores should play some role.

“It is important to make sure we are measuring student performance but we’re not discouraging good teachers from going into classrooms that will be helping the most challenging of students,” Davis said.

Abbott ignored the question and talked about his overall education goal.

“I want to genuinely elevate the Texas education system to be ranked No. 1 in the nation," Abbott said. "We do that by starting with the fundamental building block for reading and writing from the very beginning.”

Learn more about the Five Days in October series here -- there are stories, and radio and TV pieces, too.

We wanted more details on testing from both candidates, so we asked them to answer the following three questions:

  1. Should student promotion and graduation be linked to test scores?

Abbott’s campaign says he believes we don’t need a standardized test to determine whether a student is ready to learn at the next grade.

Davis says test scores can be a factor in deciding whether to promote a student but homework, assignments, and other projects should also be considered.

  1. How much of a teacher’s evaluation and pay should be based on test results?

Both candidates said local communities should make the final decision. Here’s Abbott during the debate.

“With regard to evaluating teachers, I think decisions like that should be made at local control,” he said.

While saying local teachers, parents and administrators should decide, Davis in an interview questioned whether standardized tests results can measure the quality of a teacher.

“I think we have to be very careful to test those things only within a teacher’s control," Davis said. "And if we see teachers making progress with students who have a long way to go that ought to be recognized and certainly ought to be rewarded."

She said teachers shouldn’t be held accountable “to a system that underfunded their ability to do their job,” and left classrooms overcrowded.

  1. Should tenure and seniority be factors in deciding teacher pay?

In Dallas’ new plan, those criteria will be eliminated.

Abbott’s campaign sidestepped the question, saying only that “the most critical factor in determining pay is effectiveness in the classroom."

Davis believes tenure and seniority should be considered. She says teachers should be rewarded for “persevering and improving” in their field.

Outside Hexter Elementary, Stacey Adams likes linking tests to salaries because she thinks that may weed out teachers who aren’t measuring up.

“I think there are a lot of teachers who have tenure just because they’ve been in classroom for years, get more money to stay," Adams said. "I like that there’s an accountability there.”

Another mother, Carey Henderson, sees it differently.

“I think (linking test scores to pay) puts an added pressure on the teachers and it takes away from their purpose: to teach how to learn and not teach them to take a test,” Henderson said.

The next governor will also be tested as lawmakers debate whether Texas is using high=stakes exams to promote learning or to punish students and teachers.

On Sunday, The Dallas Morning News and NBC5 will delve further into where the candidates stand on education.

Written Responses from Campaigns:

  1. Should student promotion and graduation be linked to test scores?

Abbott: Greg Abbott does not believe that we need a STAAR test to inform parents, teachers, and principals whether a student is ready to learn at the next grade level. 

Davis:  Test scores should only be considered as part of a student's overall portfolio, along with homework, assignments, and other projects. 

  1. How much of a teacher’s evaluation and pay should be based on student testing?

Abbott: Greg Abbott’s Educating Texans plan empowers local school districts to be the ultimate decision-makers in determining how to evaluate the performance of their teachers, however, he believes that the Texas Teaching Commission has done excellent work in this area and provides a sound framework for districts to consider.

Davis: Teachers, parents, and local school administrators should decide the individual components used to evaluate teachers. The state should not force districts to link teacher compensation to test scores since standardized tests were not designed to measure instructional quality. 

  1. Should tenure, seniority and level of education (advanced degrees) be factors in determining teacher pay?

Abbott: Greg Abbott believes that while there are many factors that go into determining teacher pay, the most critical is effectiveness in the classroom.   

Davis: Yes. The minimum salary schedule is a promise that the state makes to new teachers that says "we will reward you for persevering and learning and improving in your field." School districts have the option to increase compensation based on local needs and education strategies, and many offer bonuses for field specializations.

- Shelley Kofler, KERA News