A Vote for Suspending First Graders is a Vote to Keep HISD’s School-to-Prison Pipeline 

At last month’s board meeting, as a part of a group of parents from Community Voices for Public Education, I attended the Houston ISD School Board meeting in order to advocate for parents who are planning to opt their children out of the state-mandated STAAR test. You can read more about that movement and its progress in the Texas Observer.

While I felt strongly about that issue, there is something else that captured my attention at that meeting—the debate that the trustees held regarding banning the use of suspensions for our youngest children ages 4 through about 7 years old.

It was fascinating and infuriating to watch for many reasons. You can read the actual policy proposal on Page 154 #3 of November’s board agenda and the type of broad based support it has here, here and here, but the summary is that the policy would ban suspensions in Grades 2 and below, and for students in Grades 3, 4 and 5, it makes suspension the discipline of last resort.

This policy is sound for many reason including:

  • There is no research to support the idea that student behavior improves with exclusionary discipline practices. In fact, research shows that student behavior problems are more likely to be exacerbated and decrease the student’s chances for success in school later. 
  • Research shows that suspensions damage the teacher-student bond and bonds with other adults in the school setting. Children need to develop these bonds in order to be successful in school.
  • Suspensions are not developmentally appropriate for 4-7 year olds as they have not yet developed the cognitive skills necessary to understand the punishment.
  • Doing away with suspensions has been done in other districts and schools across the country and has been successful. 
  • Suspensions are applied disproportionately to students of color and students with disabilities. According to the Office of Civil Rights, African-American students were nearly three times as likely to be suspended and 3.5 times as likely to be expelled than their white peers. Students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at a rate roughly twice that of their non-disabled peers. HISD’s own data reflects these disturbing gaps in the application of policy.

As an LSSP, I have seen firsthand the effects suspension has on children, and they are severe. 

President Skillern-Jones said it well during public debate that suspension for our youngest was an ineffective solution to root problems. She explained accurately that once kids are suspended, they go home to no educational activity or enrichment (often to the environment that is the source of the problem in the first place), and they then come back to campus with a negative view of school PLUS are behind academically when they return. These negative views and further academic gaps then snowball with the original issue.

Fundamentally, suspensions accelerate a student towards failure. 

Suspension does terrible things for the student-teacher relationship and the student-administrator relationship. It sends the message to the child that the school cannot handle their bad behavior, which is a terrible message to send. Skillern-Jones also brought up the fact that in these youngest students cognitive skills are not sufficiently developed to a point that suspensions are understood as a punishment such that it is remembered and impacts their future behavior.

Furthermore, these negative effects add to HISD’s discriminatory environment as suspensions are experienced disproportionately by children of color and by males. Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones offered many facts during last month’s discussion including that in Texas 13% of the elementary school students are black, but account for 42% of Pre-K through 2nd Grade suspensions.

HISDSuspensionsChronGraphicsource: HISD student suspensions in five graphics by Ericka Mellon

Banning suspensions for such young students is a sound policy and would put a serious dent at the beginning of HISD’s school-to-prison pipeline. As the largest district in Texas, Houston ISD could be a leader for the state.

Unfortunately, as you can guess, the Board of Trustees disappointed its stakeholders and experts yet again and failed to pass the policy as recommended by administrators.

What happened was a brilliant political move by Trustee Harvin Moore, from the River Oaks area. After relaying a story of how his 4-year-old son benefitted from an afternoon suspension from an elite, private preschool and had to spend the afternoon with his mother, he offered an amendment that gutted the policy by changing it to read that suspensions could be used as a last resort.

Does Mr. Moore think that the thousands of young children suspended in HISD are really comparable to his son being sent home for throwing rocks at a private preschool? Does he really think that administrators are using suspensions today as something other than a last resort? What principal says, “Well, I’ll try suspending this kid, but if his behavior continues, then I’ll be forced to do something else.”

Mr. Moore is clearly out of touch.

Alas, his amendment was accepted and the policy passed first reading as amended with only two trustees voting against it—effectively leaving suspension policy as is.

I was particularly disappointed in my Trustee from District I, Anna Eastman. She is educated as a social worker, and as such, should have known that keeping our youngest children in school and finding solutions to root causes of behavior problems was sound public policy. If there is anything that gives me hope, it was the passion that President Rhonda Skillern-Jones has displayed for change on this issue. She truly advocated for the best for all students and was the only one willing to speak out on their behalf. I can’t wait to see more of her advocacy in action.

I hope the trustees will reconsider the original form of the policy when it comes back for second reading this Thursday. They should realize that suspension of 4, 5 and 6-year-olds is not a tool in the discipline toolbox. It is an ineffective, discriminatory practice that creates much bigger problems and must be eliminated now. There are societal consequences of using suspension for discipline, which include setting children on a negative path and exacerbating inequality.

A vote for suspensions of our youngest is a vote to keep HISD’s school-to-prison pipeline alive and well.

Allow me to briefly introduce my wife, Sarah Becker, the author of this post. She is a licensed specialist in school psychology, has worked in public schools for 10 years and is mother to our three kids. She feels just as strongly as I do about the inadequacies of Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees and chose to write this piece to draw attention to an important education and social justice issue coming before them again this week.

How Houston ISD Policymaking Really Works… A story of trustee indifference & an academic chief putting PR first, students second.

Problem.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work…

We each elect our respective school board trustees based on who we think share our values on education. Those trustees come together as a board of education to set the direction for the district in the form of three major outputs:

  • Policy — directing outcomes the trustees expect from the schools (curriculum, discipline, nutrition athletics, etc);
  • Budget — funding the programs needed to execute those policies;
  • Superintendent — hired and managed to execute those policies and monies and report progress back to the board.

The superintendent hires a staff and faculty to carryout these programs and creates “administrative regulation” which is the manner in which she or he puts district policies and programs into action.

And round and round the cycle goes—trustees recognizing needs from constituents, leveraging the skills and passions we elected them for, and setting the course for the district and monitoring its progress.

Unfortunately, it usually works like this…

The board meets each month to react. They react to controversies. They react to personnel issues. They react to scandal. They react to budget shortfalls. They react to campus overcrowding, and they react to new state or federal laws. In their effort to react quickly, they look to the professionals to tell them what to do. They have the superintendent and his or her staff, consultants and external lawyers. All of these resources flow through the administration and each month that administration brings policy drafts and budget/expenditure requests to the board. This leaves the board to ask a handful of questions at a couple of meetings a month before they dutifully approve for the policies recommended by the administration.

Where’s the vision? Where’s the leadership we elected them for?

Example.

Let’s put this in the context of a real life example that leads up to a policy the board will vote on tonight.

Last year, during the spring administration of the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness), many Houston parents joined a national movement to opt their children out of being tested. These parents based their decisions on a myriad of concerns including:

Over 70 students in Houston joined the hundreds of thousands around the country, said “No more!” and opted out of the STAAR. This raised awareness both locally and nationally. Just this summer, policies were changed in HISD to give campuses more autonomy on benchmark or practice tests, and in Austin and Washington, political leaders are taking a serious look at the snowball of testing created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

However, something else happened last year. Houston ISD administrators were caught off guard by parent participation in the movement and fumbled its response. Several rounds of misinformation and campus-level intimidation ensued, and then, embarrassed by the missteps, the administration and trustees were forced to “educate” their constituents with corrected information and made promises of fixing misunderstandings next year.

As usual, trustees were not proactive in addressing parental concerns and waited for the administration to determine if new policy was necessary. To our dismay, but not our surprise, administration brought forward a policy that was neither student-centered or respectful of parental rights.

Frankly, calling what they did bring forward a “policy” is somewhat of a stretch. The mere seven-sentence insert, titled Opt-Out Implications, to HISD’s larger Testing Programs policy is a handful of directives usually relegated to those “administrative regulations” that I mentioned before.

Here is the language that was presented to the board upon first reading in September and some immediate questions that come to mind…

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Though this seven-sentence policy doesn’t actually change anything tangible for parents or students who choose to opt out, it does give the administration a tool to bully parents who are considering opting out and presents a singular opinion that all campuses must put forward with respect to opting out regardless of wide ranging support the opt out movement has among teachers and principals.

Public Relations First.

After the policy’s first reading and an outcry from parents and teachers, Dr. Andrew Houlihan, Houston ISD’s Chief Academic Offer, offered to meet with concerned parents to get their input. We thought he met with us in good faith. We even drafted reasonable requests for a broader, more proactive policy that clearly outlines expectations for student welfare when a parent exercises their opt-out rights.

Here are our letters to Dr. Houlihan before and after our meeting as well as his response.

Unfortunately, good faith is the last thing we appear to have been given.

While we awaited his consideration and response, training for campus test administrators was already underway. The below draft opt-out form and the text of the yet-to-be-approved board policy are already being included in this training.

assessment refusal form

Even if presented to faculty and staff as “draft,” the fact that we weren’t afforded the same visibility into these drafts during our meeting to provide input as well as the false commitment made in that meeting that our concerns would be taken into consideration when creating said drafts and training illustrate that our questions and concerns were meaningless—except as a token for public/board relations.

Real Policy.

So, if trustees found themselves concerned, wanted to lead on this issue and were interested in addressing parental concerns, what would a good opt out policy look like?

First—it would protect students and their learning environment. In opting out, parents are communicating a point to district administrators and state and national leaders. We can all agree that the children shouldn’t be put in the middle of disagreements among adults. If parents could be assured that their kids wouldn’t be coerced into taking tests if they show up on test days, parents would prefer to have them in school and getting alternative instruction for the day. And educators would prefer not to have kids absent and lose state attendance dollars.

Trustees should make it policy that alternative educational programing be made available to students who are present but not being assessed due to parent choice.

Second—it would protect students and their parents from bullying and intimidation by campus administrators. One of the unfortunate consequences of the high-stakes and tunnel vision on these scores is that occasionally the metrics trump the child. Last year, there were dozens of accounts of assistant principals and principals making disciplinary threats to students and parents that chose to be absent on test day.

Trustees should make it policy that no negative consequences will come to students or parents as a result of opting out, but additionally, based on past negative experiences, it should be policy that there be a dedicated place in the central administration for parents to raise urgent questions and concerns if they are feeling pressured or have experiences contradictory to this policy on test days.

Third—it would protect teachers and principals. In light of the focus HISD puts on these scores, the district should underscore with its faculty that respecting parental rights to opt out will not have a negative impact on them.

Trustees should make it policy that no performance criteria used for compensation or contract renewal decisions will include metrics that reference opt out participation or include zeros from opt out scorecards submitted to the TEA.

Challenge.

After watching the board for the past year, I have yet to see any policy that was trustee driven—and I don’t mean the text, I mean the ideas (maybe the recent authorization to hire an independent auditor for the bond program qualifies; it was certainly not the superintendent’s idea). Furthermore, 9 out of 10 times the board votes in favor of the administration’s proposals with little to no amendment.

This opt out policy is a small thing. Whether trustees agree or disagree with parents about the usefulness of STAAR, surely we all agree that parents should expect that they and their children will be treated with respect at all times.

So I ask:

Will the board take up these reasonable parent concerns? Will it direct the administration with new policy and expectations?

Or will this be another policy in a long line of policies that the administration directs the board to approve?

We shall see tonight.

Fight Corporate Education Reform by Taking Back One of the Districts that Put It on the Map

Today, after listening at an unparalleled candidate forum, Sarah and I donated to two different Houston ISD trustee campaigns (Ms. Juliet Stipeche, Dr. Ann McCoy), and we encourage you to do the same.

Our own trustee seat isn’t up for election this year and maybe you’re one of our countless friends afar who don’t have anything to do with Houston or Houston ISD, but this November’s election isn’t just about our own representatives, it’s about a once-in-a-decade opportunity to influence who is put in charge of Texas’ largest school district — 29,000 employees, 215,000 students, 285 schools with a $1.7 billion operating budget. With four of nine seats on a single school board up for election, there is a singular opportunity here to change the tide of education reform in Texas and weigh in on a national movement. And these four elections will be won or lost on budgets of just tens of thousands of dollars — not the hundreds of millions for state and national races.

Imagine what we could do with the right team of trustees willing to act in the fourth largest school district in the country — with those that have a vision for comprehensive neighborhood schools for every child, with those that have such a respect for the profession of teaching that they know it can’t be reduced to a simple equation, with those that have the critical thinking to not only approve policy but to create it, and with those who have the fortitude to see our campuses rebuilt from the ground up for the next century of students. With trustees like this, Houston ISD could be the urban school district that leads the nation back from the depths of corporate education reform and from the brink of privatizing of our public schools.

All politics is local. If you’re passionate about children and the fact that quality education is at the heart of reforming every other part of our society, then consider getting involved in this particular local election. Your vote, your voice, your volunteerism and your very impactful dollars can matter here. Get involved, and if you can, tangibly back these candidates that we believe will make a difference.

Can HISD trustees trust their lawyers?

An Open Letter to the Trustees of the Houston Independent School District Board of Education

Dear Trustees,

In light of the recent news of Superintendent Terry Grier’s resignation, new questions are in order regarding a potentially serious conflict of interest or at the very least the public perception of one. My concern stems from a dual relationship with the school board’s own legal counsel — attorneys at Thompson & Horton LLP. These lawyers serve in two capacities: 1) as your counsel in negotiations with your sole employee, Dr. Grier, and 2) as Dr. Grier’s lawyers when they represent him and his staff on various matters as one of the district’s several law firms.

When the district and the superintendent engage in contract negotiations, Dr. Grier is represented by a personal attorney from an unrelated firm. For instance, he was represented by Adams, Lynch & Loftin, P.C. when he negotiated and signed his original 2009 contract. At that same time, the trustees used one of the law firms retained by HISD.

At first glance, this seems normal. Prior to working for Houston ISD, Dr. Grier had a personal attorney and the trustee’s had the district’s attorneys. But once Dr. Grier was at the helm of a $1.7 billion a year enterprise as CEO, the district’s lawyers became his lawyers — his counsel. Over the years, he and his staff have paid those lawyers for representation in countless legal matters. Fees to these law firms have surely been in the millions of dollars since Dr. Grier took office making him not only their client but their customer — and as HISD is the largest school district in Texas, a sizable one at that.

To illustrate the conflict, imagine the unfortunate situation of divorce. Would one spouse hire a lawyer from the same firm the other spouse did business with at their job? No. Nor would the state bar association’s ethics allow such a dual relationship.

Each year, when you, the school board, ask questions of your legal counsel regarding Dr. Grier’s contract — for interpretation on how to evaluate him and determine his $100,000 plus bonuses within the context of his employment contract — these attorneys were advising you on how to deal with one of their largest clients. How independent and unbiased do you think that advice was?

Here’s what I read from the State Bar of Texas on professional ethics:

TEXAS DISCIPLINARY RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT

Rule 1.06. Conflict of Interest: General Rule

“(b) … a lawyer shall not represent a person if the representation of that person:

(1) involves a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially and directly adverse to the interests of another client of the lawyer or the lawyer’s firm; or

(2) reasonably appears to be or become adversely limited by the lawyer’s or law firm’s responsibilities to another client or to a third person or by the lawyer’s or law firm’s own interests.”

Either I am misinterpreting this requirement, the trustees were made aware of the conflict and consented to it (without regard to public appearances), or a number of lawyers inside and outside the district are choosing to ignore the application of this rule.

As you begin “closed session” deliberations with your lawyers, presumably from Thompson & Horton, about a separation agreement between the district and Dr. Grier, what kind of opinions do you expect? How will they advise you on determining bonus compensation for 2015 or for determining the value and implications of his intent to leave prior to the end of his current contract? Even though you might feel you have smart lawyers supporting you and you would hope they’re lawyers of strong character, can you, as our trustees, afford even the slightest perception of bias or impropriety? Should this even be a question in the minds of your constituents?

The students, parents, educators and tax payers throughout the district see this superintendent transition as a seminal moment for the district’s future. I know I’m not alone in expressing an expectation that in moments like this we expect you to have every resource at your disposal to make the best decision for us all — and a basic requirement is strong, independent legal counsel. Of course there is a routine procurement process (even one underway) for these type of legal services at HISD, but in light of Dr. Grier’s surprise resignation and the public perception created by the facts outlined here, finding new legal counsel for this specific matter must be of the upmost importance and done with urgency.

So I ask… When you meet in private on Tuesday morning, will you make it your very first action in the transition process to retain new, independent counsel to advise you on Dr. Grier’s exit and in the hiring of his replacement? I hope that you will.

The public has placed their trust in you. Please show us there is no reason to question that trust.

Sincerely,

Ben Becker

District I Resident & Parent

End Over Testing Petition Update: Trustees aloof while supporters reach 500 in Week 1

This is an update to the 500+ supporters that have signed our petition to End Over Testing in Houston ISD. Originally posted here.

Dear Supporters,

While we’ve ended our first week of the petition with an amazing amount of support, our trustees and superintendent have chosen to either ignore or respond with confusion and contempt.

Contempt:CFBPPbkUgAABYqL

Dr. Grier was tweeting sports scores during the public testimony at last week’s board meeting after parents and teachers waited five hours to speak just 60 seconds on the topic of over testing.

Ignore:

The school board has a workshop with district staff this week on the topic of Testing and Accountability, and even though our petition has received a lot of attention, trustees have yet to invite the public to provide input.

Confusion:

Here’s an example of dialogue with District I Trustee Anna Eastman on the Community Voices for Public Education Facebook page

Anna Milliken Eastman: “Thanks for [the petition]. Could you all please explain your stats? I’ve shown it to the folks who write the assessments (who also, BTW, want them to be optional and tailored to campuses-your road block is the Schools Office). We don’t see where you get that every school week has, at least, an entire day taken up by a DLA/snapshot, nor do we understand the one out of every seven morning hours stat.”

Ben Becker: “GoHISD-AssessmentCultureByTheNumbers2od morning, Anna! The statistic isn’t a weekly figure but says that 25% of (or 1 out of every 4) full school days in the year had a test. All the numbers, including the 1 in 7 morning instructional hours is further explained in the attached infographic I’ve created to break down a 5th grade experience in HISD this year. Sources are a couple of testing calendars on HISD’s site and answers to parent inquiries with teachers and principals about time allotments.

Anna Milliken Eastman: “Thank you.”

Ben Becker: “Ms. Eastman, This morning, in response to our petition being posted in this forum, you asked for factual clarifications and then stated that our roadblock is in the Schools Office. But my question, the question of all the people who have signed this petition, is are you a roadblock?

Will you put forward a policy from the board to end this intrusive cadence of snapshots and DLAs and limit standardized tests to one or two a year for the purposes you’ve recently espoused?

Your Chronicle op-ed on March 3 stated: ‘We need consistent, annual, objective data across schools and classrooms based on an agreed-upon set of goals…’ This petition specifically calls for that.

Furthermore, in the same piece, you invited folks to ‘demand local districts prohibit days wasted with practice tests and lockdowns for kids in untested subjects who ultimately miss out on valuable instruction time.’ This is exactly what we’re asking for.

So where do you stand? Are you for 5th graders next year taking a district-wide standardized assessment on 25% of their school days or are you for a reasonable policy of annual assessments to monitor school and classroom performance?

Please consider that the board has an opportunity to set new policy here. I don’t believe you or the other trustees have ever explicitly voted for this testing schedule but have trusted the superintendent to do what’s best. This trust has failed. We ask that this issue not be passed off to a corner of the HISD bureaucracy. This is an opportunity to make new policy, protect our children, and to exercise oversight of the district’s CEO. This is what we elected you and your fellow trustees to do.

Please help.”

Anna Milliken Eastman: “Ben, I plan to host a meeting in June after school is out and after we’ve determined our budget. I am not for fifth graders spending 25% of their time taking DLAs, but am skeptical that they actually do. I’d still appreciate an explanation of your stats. The snapshot of the testing schedule with overlaid with percentages doesn’t do that. Right now discussions are around making district support through snapshots optional for schools and I’m not sure we need policy to determine that or an agreement from admin. Thanks for keeping this fresh in my mind when I’ve got many other balls in the air.”

If the above actions or lack there of cause you concern. Please consider emailing your trustee and demand a special public hearing on the matter, so that district staff and the school board can hear everyone’s concerns before setting next year’s testing calendar.

aeastman@houstonisd.org | District I Trustee, Anna Eastman
rskille2@houstonisd.org | President & District II Trustee, Rhonda Skillern-Jones
mrodrigu@houstonisd.org | District III Trustee, Manuel Rodriguez, Jr.
pharris3@houstonisd.org | District IV Trustee, Paula M. Harris
mluncefo@houstonisd.org | District V Trustee, Michael L. Lunceford
gmeyers@houstonisd.org | District VI Trustee, Greg Meyers
hmoore1@houstonisd.org | District VII Trustee, Harvin C. Moore
jstipeche@houstonisd.org | District VIII Trustee, Juliet K. Stipeche
wadams2@houstonisd.org | District IX Trustee, Wanda Adams

Thanks again for everyone’s support. I look forward to inviting you all to an HISD town hall meeting where your voices can be heard in person soon.

Cheers,
Ben Becker

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.

Ben_Becker_on_Twitter___Civil_dialogue_on_high-stakes_tests_in__HoustonISD_D9__Wandaful1913_Thx_for_listening___AnnaEforHISD__When_is_D1_mtg__http___t_co_OLSfRxcwCF_

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.

HISD-AssessmentCultureByTheNumbers2

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.

To My School Board Trustee (Houston ISD District 1):

Dear Ms. Eastman,

I read your op-ed last month, and it was this piece, in part, that got me thinking it was time for action.

Your statement was quite troubling, because we seem to agree on so much of the problem but you offer no tangible solution other than don’t opt out, and I’m left asking: Are you using your position as trustee to influence us or the district?

WHERE WE AGREE: You sympathized with us and suggested we should reduce mock tests and narrowing curriculum. You said you were aggravated by the focus on “test-taking strategies.” You explained that you are “outraged” when your own children “spent the day sequestered in an auditorium because other kids in their building were taking a standardized test.” All these statements position yourself as a concerned parent among us.

WHERE WE DISAGREE: You suggested in your piece that we want “throw the tests out altogether” and “eliminate standards.” This is simply not true. Most of us want an accurate, annual standardized assessment to do what they’re intended to do: assess large systems — the state, the district and schools. We want to pair that with empowering teachers and principals to do what they do best: delivering well-rounded and engaging curricula and adapting to their students’ potential to maximize learning.

I just don’t understand this disconnect. Does your OpEd mean you still don’t understand our concerns? Or, are you being a good politician and attempting to tamp down the constituent discontent brought about by the policies you support?

To better understand, LET’S BE SPECIFIC:

A) Do you agree with this testing schedule? http://www.houstonisd.org/Page/102486
B) Do you agree with making the STAAR a promotion standard for all grades 3 – 8?
C) Do you agree with using Value Added Models to assess and pay based on relative student performance where teachers and principals compete for bonus dollars?

Or, if you agree with these, which specific policies do you propose to address your stated concerns?

You can’t be for all of the practices that make these assessments high stakes and then be “aggravated” and “outraged” at the resulting effects on the school environment.

IN CONCLUSION: We know that the board doesn’t elect to administer the STAAR. Though we’d love a board on our side regarding issues like STAAR’s statistical inaccuracy and appalling application to special education students, we’re happy to fight the TEA, state legislature and Congress alone.

However, when it comes to opting out, know this: our opting out is a VOTE, a VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE in our school board and the way it’s choosing to embrace, implement and expand the use of high stakes testing in our schools. We’re not avoiding a test because we’re afraid — we are withdrawing our parental consent to have our children assessed, assessed in a manner inconsistent with our beliefs.

HISD and its board can either be a part of the solution now or pick up the financial pieces later as more teachers, parents and students depart — taking their passion, engagement and Average Daily Attendance dollars with them.

Sincerely, Ben Becker | HISD District 1 Parent of 2 (soon to be 3).