In Texas, Umphrey Lee Elementary School has fallen from grace. The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) has uncovered cheating – teachers coaching and preparing students with near exact versions of the exam questions – on the STAAR tests taken by students. After 5 teachers were transferred out of Umphrey Lee, the scores dropped dramatically as the school fell from the top of the rankings right to the bottom. The DISD unfortunately failed to let parents know of the scandal until very recently. What is STAAR? Why that would be State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, a state-mandated standardized test born on the grave of TAKS – Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills which was killed by the state senate in 2007 in a bill demanding a return to end-of-course assessments instead of TAKS approach of testing general core subjects. TAKS in turn was begat by TAAS – Texas Assessment of Academic Skills – which saw light in 1991 after being begat by TEAMS – Texas Assessment of Minimum Skills which was laid to rest in 1990.

It is not at all cute to say that these twisted tangles of acronyms are in fact the Genesis of state mandated testing. It started in Texas, and it seems Texas is still trying to get it right. Who needs Common Core when you can have all kinds of fun with battling versions of what an appropriate standardized test should look like? Or perhaps one should ask, should it be easy to come up with a schools standardized test? And what are they intended to be used for, compared to what they are actually used for?

In a piece published on ASCD’s site – formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development which saw light in 1943 – James Popham criticized the use of standardized tests for evaluating the quality of education. He stated that: Standardized tests are a one-size-fits-all and do not measure “curricular diversity.” What is taught in a particular classroom anywhere around the country might not match the focus on a standardized test. Secondly, in order to differentiate between students, tests are constructed in such a way that questions that a large majority of students tend to answer correctly are eliminated from the test. Questions that most students fail to answer correctly are also eliminated. That means items that students understand well are often not on the standardized tests. As well, questions that measure student’s “in-born intellectual abilities” are not a measure of how well they have been taught, according to Popham. Finally, he takes a shot at out-of-school learning which is often reflected in these tests, placing lower-income students at a disadvantage, although he is careful not to use the term. Throw in the conflict over intelligent design’s place in any curriculum, especially as regards the Texas Education Agency, TEA, and it seems that constructing a standardized test that will please all so-called stakeholders is an impossible task.

Unfortunately, some sort of standardized tests are necessary if students abilities to do math and science and read and write are to be assessed. How much weight should be given to any of the test results is a matter that each state will be grappling with for some time.