Dan Gohl, HISD’s Academic Chief: “Tests are like Taxes”

CEXmWBRUIAAf1d8.jpg-largeLast week, I went to a community meeting at Hines-Caldwell Elementary School in southwest Houston. HISD School Board Trustee Wanda Adams had called the meeting for her constituents to hear from district staff about the STAAR exam and promotion standards and to allow them to ask questions and voice concerns. Though I’m not in Ms. Adams’ district, I was intrigued by the fact someone was listening to the groundswell of concern regarding HISD’s testing culture and that a school board trustee was engaging her constituents beyond toting the superintendent’s line to the public. So I drove across the city during rush hour to listen, and I was sorely disappointed with what I heard.

It was an hour long meeting — 5:30 to 6:30 — and Daniel Gohl, HISD’s Chief Academic Officer for the last couple of years, presented for half of the meeting and answered most of the questions raised by the eight or so folks who had time to speak. He presented PowerPoint slides to walk the audience of parents through various state mandates and their definitions: What are the TEKS? What is STAAR? What are promotion standards? Mr. Gohl used words like Carnegie Units, criterion-referenced, norm-referenced and a number of metaphors involving taxes and dentists in an effort to convince us that this was sophisticated business and there were good reasons for all of these tests.

His tutorial went like this… the state creates the standard: Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS) –> the state measures against that standard: State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) –> the district uses benchmark exams to monitor progress ahead of STAAR.


Mr. Gohl’s passion for education was apparent, and I could appreciate from his enthusiasm that he desired to have a positive impact on a large scale. My disappointment came from the fact that he seemed to be 100% sold on the state’s concept of a single standard and that it was this standard that determined whether a child would leave the public school system ready to be a productive citizen. Furthermore, he was sure to repeat over and over that the state — not HISD — set these standards and mandated every student take the STAAR test. At one point, Mr. Gohl said, “Tests are like taxes.” Presumably, this was to illustrate the fact that nobody likes them but we all have to pay (take) them.

This left me with so many concerns.

No one, including Mr. Gohl, would agree that the TEKS are the end all, be all for our children. But the problem isn’t what we think, it’s what we do, and in HISD, the district’s actions suggest performance on the STAAR is the most important goal and metric on which to measure itself. How do we know this? Look at this year’s testing calendars here and here. They are a little difficult to decode, but what they say is that in addition to STAAR and IOWA — the district’s two main standardized assessments — elementary school students will take anywhere from 20 to 30 additional standardized tests from the district.

Now remember, Mr. Gohl and the HISD public relations machine constantly repeat the refrain of state mandated assessments with no provision for opting out of STAAR. The overall public focus is on STAAR — taking it, the scores coming out of it, the school rankings derived from it, and this year, parents opting their children out of it. All of this focus on STAAR provides a significant screen that prevents us from seeing the assessment culture that surrounds it. An assessment culture that is unique within the State of Texas.

To have a better look at how this culture impacts a student, particularly relative to that student’s entire year and the time she or he has to spend on instruction, I’ve assembled information from various HISD calendars and combined it with responses to inquiries about how long each of the tests on the calendar take. I then calculate for an example year (the 5th Grade in this case) approximately how many hours the student spent taking these assessments and on how many of his or her regular school days throughout the year these tests impacted.

I also made some conservative assumptions about how much time the student would normally spend on instruction. The elementary school day from 7:45a to 2:45p is 7 hours which includes 30 minutes for lunch and at least 30 minutes for recess and/or physical education leaving 6 hours. Being extremely conservative, we can assume that another 30 minutes a day is consumed by “extras” like music and art and daily routine like announcements, bathroom breaks and transitions. That leaves 5.5 hours a day for what I label as core instructional time.

I also found it notable that every assessment I inquired about was given during the morning hours. This makes sense given a young child’s attention span and energy level. Of course, just as the morning hours are the best time of day for exams, so too is it the best time for instruction. Hence, I decided to calculate the impact of district assessments on both the total instructional time and morning instructional time across the year.

What I found was astonishing.


First astonishing statistic: a 5th grader in HISD this year took a standardized assessment on at least 43 days out of his or her 175 full school days (there were 5 early dismissal days in the 180 day academic year; we all know how early dismissal days go, so I didn’t count them). That means 25% of the student’s days in school were met with a district-wide assessment — mostly of the number-two-pencil, bubble-in sort.

Second stat: If you look at the impact these assessments are having on morning instructional time, you see that a 5th grader spent about 1 hour out of every 7 available morning instructional hours throughout the year taking an assessment. That’s almost 15% of critical learning time taken away from teachers and students. It is hard to fathom how anyone allowed this to be implemented without recognizing the detrimental impact on the classroom.

Third stat (and it’s a doozie): 82% of these assessments are NOT state mandated — they’re a district choice. Remember Mr. Gohl saying: “Tests are like taxes?” Well, he and Mr. Grier seem to be the taxing authority. For all the rhetoric about the state mandating the STAAR, we can see the district chooses to invest 3x or 4x as many hours on benchmarks preparing for STAAR than the STAAR takes up itself. By the way, this estimate is for a satisfactorily performing student at satisfactorily performing campus. We know anecdotally that there are campuses under greater scrutiny which spend significantly more time taking full practice STAAR tests on a regular basis. Furthermore, these numbers don’t account for all the pullout services some students receive when they’re targeted for improved scores.

Now, Mr. Gohl mentioned several times in his answers to parents at the community meeting that snapshots or benchmarks were “quick checks for understanding.” This has been a key phrase used by administrators and trustees in responding to criticism related to over testing. These words down-play what these assessments really are as if they were just regular exams one would expect from teachers in the classroom, but in fact, they are short practice STAAR tests. Take a look below at a handful of this year’s 5th Grade “snapshots”…

I particularly like the reading passage that discusses not comparing oneself to others.

Jokes aside, these assessments (note they are titled assessment in the footer) look and feel just like a STAAR test. They bubble in answers on Scantron answer sheets. Notice the instructions to “go on” and “stop.” Some students take these assessments in different rooms just like they would the STAAR. This similarity is likely by design as practicing the mechanics of taking tests has an impact on performance. But to call these “quick checks” and brush them off as something the teacher was already doing is completely inaccurate. It’s no wonder we hear so many stories of kids getting anxiety. With the constant exposure to these auspicious testing methods (auspicious for 8, 9, 10 year olds), our youngest children likely have a difficult time differentiating between the varying level of importance or weight any given assessment has — they all look the same, and all students know is they’re assessed and monitored continually.

In conclusion…

Every parent I’ve spoken with in the last few months is similarly appalled. First, they’re shocked as many aren’t even aware that this many tests are being administered; and then, uniformly, everyone thinks this is wrong.

Another quote from Mr. Gohl last week’s community meeting: “Our principals are desperate to show their kids can achieve.” He said this in the context of parents opting their children out of STAAR and suggested that those parents were robbing students and campuses of showing positive work. In light of this week’s investigations related to principal grade changing scandal in HISD and other standardized test cheating scandals gone by, I would agree with Mr. Gohl that many educators are desperate — most in good faith and some not. However, this desperation comes from the high stakes the district puts on these assessments and the pressure to perform to state standards under any circumstance.

But there is another growing desperation in HISD. The desperation of four year old pre-k kids upset that they have indoor recess on bright and sunny testing days. That of 2nd graders telling their parents they don’t want to go to the 3rd grade because they don’t want to take STAAR “tests” next year. That of 5th graders vomiting the night before STAAR, because they know they didn’t do so well on the last snapshot and if they don’t pass the STAAR they might not get to go to middle school. This assessment culture is indeed creating a lot of desperation in Houston ISD and parents and teachers experience it every day.

So, what can you do?

There are many folks advocating for various changes — some related to promotion standards or teacher pay, some related to state accountability standards and some related to the right to opt their children out of STAAR.

But whether you find yourself among those efforts or are just upset with all these tests, consider signing the change.org petition we’ve started to lend a voice to desperate parents. A voice for parents that want our elected school board to make new policy limiting district-mandated tests. A voice for parents that want to take our classrooms back and empower our teachers and principals to be the educators we respect and provide the educational experience we know our children deserve.

Change.org Petition to HISD School Board:

Make it HISD policy to limit district-wide 2014 BOEstandardized assessments to one or two per year, end the practice of district snapshots and benchmarks, and return responsibility of testing students for mastery back to teachers and principals.

Interested? Go here to read, sign and share. The movement is afoot, and we need everyone’s help. In the meantime, if you have stories to share about HISD’s assessment culture and the toll it’s taking on your child, teacher or campus. Speak up. We need our policy makers and administrators to hear what is happening at home and with our kids.

5 thoughts on “Dan Gohl, HISD’s Academic Chief: “Tests are like Taxes”

  1. Great points Ben! You’ve forgotten to mention that HISD’s entire curriculum now evolves around the STAAR standards. If your child has PE, art, music, etc then they are probably at a high performing school (possibly with those programs aided by the PTA/PTOs). Children at low performing schools focus on the passing the STAAR, nothing else. I don’t mind my child taking standardized tests but one test should not determine their entire school year nor the teacher’s performance.


  2. This is spot on. All this testing with no direction is increasing anxiety and not fostering critical thought.


  3. Thank you for sharing this data, which says so much about what is really going on in our schools right now.

    Ouch, though, at your categorization of music and art as “extras” in a fifth grader’s schedule. State law categorizes the arts TEKS as core requirements and demands that all students in K-5 receive a TEKS-based education in music, art and theater. HISD falls abysmally short of meeting this standard, with many schools asking regular classroom teachers to teach the arts TEKS though they are not certified to do so, and other schools not offering arts instruction at all.

    The lack of robust fine arts offerings in our schools is a direct result of our over-testing culture. Funding, space and manpower are all directed to testing in most schools. But we cannot hope to educate creative innovators and problem solvers without regular, high-quality arts instruction.

    Community partnerships with arts organizations are a step in the right direction, but just as we would not outsource math instruction to uncertified individuals as an extra-curricular offering, we should not leave the teaching of art, music and theater to anyone but certified teachers in those areas. TEKS-based arts instruction needs to be part of every student’s school day, in every HISD school. Our students deserve nothing less.

    This will not happen, however, until we scale back the degree to which our students are tested, and re-channel time and money spent on testing back into arts instruction.


    • Thanks for these thoughts. I couldn’t agree more and don’t like the term extras as either. I picked up that nomenclature from those working in the schools and used the term for expediency thinking it was a standard term for differentiating between subjects. Maybe that’s incorrect. Whatever the case, the funding choices and testing culture in HISD are abysmal.


  4. Pingback: How Houston ISD Policymaking Really Works… A story of trustee indifference & an academic chief putting PR first, students second. | Montessori Dad in Houston

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