instruction

Today, May 6, 2019, the Texas legislators are slated to vote on a version of the school finance legislation, House Bill 3, that includes a proposal to add four more writing tests and tie school funding directly to third-grade STAAR results.  The new exams would bring the total number of annual assessments to 21 and would mark the second change to the number of tests since 2012. Currently, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) includes the following assessments:

  • Reading and Mathematics, grades 3–8;
  • Writing at grades 4 and 7;
  • Science at grades 5 and 8;
  • Social Studies at grade 8;
  • End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for English I, English II, Algebra I, Biology and U.S History; and
  • Optional End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for English III and Algebra II.

According to a Texas Monthly article published this weekend, the last-minute tinkering of the recently proposed and significant school finance House Bill 3 to include more STAAR exams and link funding to third-grade STAAR results, by the Senate Education Committee comes at a time when many critics are questioning the accuracy and efficacy of the STAAR exams. Many proponents point to the need to increase the numbers assessments in order to determine student academic progress better.  Moreover, the focus on 3rd-grade assessment levels connects to the significant body of research that links 3rd-grade reading levels to future student success outcomes.  Finally, proponents want to add more writing exams, in particular, because, under the current system, students only have four writing exams (4th grade, 7th grade, English I, and English II)

On the other hand, opponents argue that the Texas Education Agency should improve the accuracy of the STAAR exams before introducing additional assessments.  After all, it is challenging to measure student progress if the instrument is inaccurate.  Opponents also question the Senate Education Committee’s tying funding to 3rd-grade STAAR results, which merely exacerbates educators’ growing cynicism about legislators’ support of public education.

Absent in the arguments of both sides of the debate is the consideration of the real cost of adding more high-stakes tests. Regardless of the timing that additional assessments are implemented, measures such as these will not improve student achievement.  Not only will district administrators, principals, and teachers focus an inordinate amount of their attention on increasing student scores on the new tests, but issues with the accuracy of STAAR academic program and strategies to improve the quality of classroom instruction still will not be resolved or even addressed.  Ironically, adding more STAAR tests, whether now or later, will result in a “miss” with regard to the ideal goal of increasing student learning.  Today’s debate will be yet another distraction from the real and pressing need to improve teaching and learning in Texas public schools.

Throughout an academic year, an instructional coach can find themselves going through cycles when working within professional learning communities (PLCs).  When you reflect on the function of your PLC group, it is easy to see how the PLC could loose focus on the main goals.  If the facilitator of the PLC doesn’t recognize the need for re-calibration early enough even the most dedicated group of educators could become completely derailed and discouraged.  As a result of experiencing PLC train wrecks as well as PLC success stories, I developed the following short refocusing exercise for the instructional coach or PLC facilitator to implement with a team of teachers.  Every team has different dynamics, but usually, around mid-year, a very observant instructional coach could begin to notice the signs that suggest it is time for a PLC Refocus.  This is simple in concept, but it requires skillful execution.  If the timing is right and the approach is non-judgmental the PLC could benefit greatly.  Give it a try, and share your results.

PLC Refocus Framework

Focus on Learning Focus on Collaboration Focus on Results Focus on Support
1. How are our actions reflecting that our focus is on student learning! 1. What are our team’s unique strengths and weaknesses? 1. How do you know that collaborative planning times are effective? 1. Specifically, how can external people and resources provide more support towards our efforts?
2. What tools do you use to reveal student understanding?  How do the results impact our collaboration? 2. How are we holding one another accountable for behaviors and actions? 2. What evidence do you see as a result of our collaborative planning?  Is there a significant change or are we doing what we have always done? 2. How could an instructional coaching impact our team?
3. As a group what obstacles are holding us back from establishing more productive collaborative planning time?

Revisiting PLC Norms
Present each question to the entire team for collaboration and ask them to share their thoughts one question at a time.  Ask clarifying questions like those below to simplify the group’s responses and collect their final answers.

  1. What will you say and do when you disagree?
  2. What will you say and do when you are not comfortable with a concept or teaching strategy?
  3. What will you say and do when a colleague achieves a goal?
  4. What will you say and do when a colleague doesn’t follow the PLC Norms?