Houston teachers expose problems with ‘teach to the test’

HOUSTON – Ever since the GOP Bush administration and Congress teamed up in 2001 to pass the No Child Left Behind law, the nation’s two teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have repeatedly said school districts misuse its accountability requirements to foster a teach to the test” mentality in the nation’s schools – and to unfairly penalize teachers whose students “fail.”

But now a new lawsuit, filed in federal court in Houston by the AFT’s affiliate there, exposes just how pernicious the problems are.

Like other Texas public worker unions, the Houston Federation of Teachers can only meet and consult with school district officials about pay, benefits and working conditions. But its 6,000 members have had it with the “teach to the test” there. Their suit is important, since it challenges the whole basis of using standardized test results to evaluate teacher performance nationwide, a key provision of the NCLB law.

The class action suit says the city’s school district’s  misuse of the tests to evaluate – and fire – its teachers violates their constitutional rights to due process of law and to equal protection of the laws. Problems included:

            • No opportunity to fix “problems” the tests identify. The test results come to the school district after the year is over – sometimes half a year later – and after the group of students the teacher had move on to another grade level. And they’re compared to the teacher’s results of the year before, or to a “peer group” of student test results statewide.

            • Wild swings in test results. A teacher can go from above average to barely average or below average from year to year and back again. The district does not tell the teacher why the swings occur, “because it doesn’t know them,” the suit says. The reasons for evaluations of individual teachers are “proprietary” to the test-giving firm.

One reason for the swings, the suit notes, is arbitrary standards for student improvement, through comparisons to the year before. If the students improve, but still fall short of the goals, which are also secret to the teachers, the teacher gets penalized.

  • Failure to make evidence available. The Houston Federation of Teachers has tried repeatedly to get the district’s reasoning for its use of the test results – which count for half of an individual teacher’s “score” – and been stonewalled.

            The suit also reports school district pressure to make other factors that go into teacher evaluation, such as classroom performance and engagement with students, align with scores.

            Penalties levied against teachers who can’t change the classroom situation.

The suit notes the test the Houston school district uses, unlike those in other districts, does not recalibrate test results to take into account socioeconomic factors – such as poverty – that affect students’ scores.

            Teachers of gifted-and-talented students are penalized because, literally, their students are already at the top of the heap. No “improvement” equals a neutral rating, or worse.

            • The tests and Texas’ curriculum requirements don’t jibe. The suit describes many instances where state standards told teachers what material they must cover in their courses, particularly in secondary schools – but the tests didn’t cover that same material.

            • No due process. Houston uses evaluations from its test results as a key measure of whether to downgrade a teacher, deny raises or bonuses or fire the teacher. But it refused to send the data either to individual teachers or their union, so they could challenge evaluations.

The union asked the federal judges to halt the school district from using the test scores, “in whole or in part…from evaluating teachers, terminating or non-renewing teachers, making high-stakes employment decisions and otherwise burdening and impairing their constitutional rights.” If the court doesn’t want to go that far, the union wants the judges to order the Houston schools to reveal information teachers and the union need for challenges.

The Houston district could be a guinea pig for the rest of the state on how to use the tests, and that not only led the Houston Federation of Teachers to court, but it led the Texas AFT to try to derail that drive in the rest of Texas, the nation’s second most-populous state.

 “The Texas Education Agency is determined to push ahead with a teacher-evaluation scheme that will make the state’s obsession with standardized testing even worse, to the detriment of students and teachers,” the Texas AFT told state lawmakers on May 14.

State Education Commissioner Michael “Williams is insisting on using inaccurate value-added methodology (VAM) as a significant factor in teacher appraisal, even though this use of students’ scores on standardized tests for high-stakes personnel decisions has been increasingly discredited by rigorous educational research…Current state law does not authorize the commissioner to compel school districts to use this VAM approach – and despite the fact that lawmakers have repeatedly rejected bills to authorize this policy,” the union said.

“Due to a faulty, incomprehensible, secret formula, good teachers like the ones filing this suit are labeled failures and our entire education system is reduced to a numbers game,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said after the Houston teachers sued.

Testing “doesn’t measure big-picture learning, critical thinking, resilience, creativity or curiosity, yet those are the qualities great teaching brings out in a student. Fixation on testing has literally drained the joy out of learning. We’ve always been leery of value-added models, and we have enough evidence to make clear that not only has VAM not worked, it’s been really destructive and it in no way helps improve teaching and learning.” 

Photo: Eric Gay/AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.