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Texas Parents Join Forces to Reduce Testing

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Many Texas moms are giving their state's 15 mandatory tests for high school graduation a resounding "E" for "excessive," and it looks like the legislature is ready to listen to them.

Organized as Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), the moms (and some dads, too) scored their first victory on March 27 when a bill that would reduce the number of mandatory "end-of-course" tests in Lone Star State schools passed the House, and now they are pressing on.

As testing season begins in earnest nationwide, thousands of parents across the country are finding ways to lodge protests—but few have more to object to than parents in Texas, where 15 end-of-course assessments are a graduation mandate under a law passed in 2009. The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, known as STAAR, would be reduced to five tests, if a bill currently in the state legislature becomes law. HB5 passed the House by a vote of 147-2 on March 27.

Intently watching the bill—and a leader of parent lobbying efforts to get it passed—is TAMSA co-founder Dineen Majcher, an attorney who dramatically reduced her practice to fight what she considers excessive testing in Texas.

"From the parents' perspective, we're not opposed to testing. We think diagnostic testing is very beneficial. ... We like norm reference tests, not for the purposes of accountability or high stakes on students, but just to get a diagnostic on how students are doing," she said in a phone interview. Her organization favors three end-of-course tests be required throughout a high school career—in reading, writing, and math.

After the landslide vote in the House, Majcher is expecting revisions as it winds its way through the state Senate. "The bills that are proposed right now—SB 3 and SB 1724—are pretty closely aligned with the House bill ... I think they will reach some kind of consensus in the Senate and the House. There's an interest in getting this done," she said. A barrage of parental lobbying calls has been cited as one of the reasons why, according to a Star-Telegram report.

While 22 industry trade associations support drastically reducing the number of STAAR tests, the Texas Association of Business is against any scale back in the number. The newspaper reports that Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has asked the Senate to require at least eight exit exams. And the Dallas Morning News recently editorialized that reducing rigor is a "big leap backward."

Certainly, that's not how Majcher and thousands of other Texas parents see it. She can trace her interest in forming the organization to back-to-school night for her 9th-grade daughter at Anderson High School in Austin in 2011. Majcher was appalled to hear how the impact of the new STAAR testing would change what happened in the classroom.

"Her social studies teacher said, 'This is going to be a different type of year [because of the impact of the new tests] and everybody should expect grades to drop precipitously because it's the first year of a new test.' I was just incredulous," said Majcher. Special projects would be gone because every moment would be devoted to mastering the information that would be on the test.

Majcher started asking questions of the high school principal, and joining forces with a few other parents. She spoke before the state legislature. "It's remarkable what a small group of people can do," said Majcher. "We started with a dozen people. Everyone sent emails to friends all over the state, and it's just mushroomed." Now, she estimates the number of the parent supporters to be in the thousands.

One of those parents crunched numbers about the cost of Texas' standardizing testing. "From 2000 to 2015, Texas will have spent $1.2 billion just on standardized testing," Majcher said. "One of our mathematician moms sat down and calculated, 'That's $2 every second; $50,000 every seven hours. At $50,000 for an average teacher's salary, we could add 1,300 teachers a year for 15 years.' This is the magnitude of the money we're spending on testing, and we're not getting anything for this," Majcher said.

In the meantime, testing season has started—and her daughter's sitting for another exam. Her daughter has done well on the tests so far, but Majcher is concerned that the prospect of testing will increase the dropout rate for students who do not test well, or those who are adept in certain subjects, but struggle with others.

In a perfect world, Majcher says, the legislature will act, the governor will sign the new law, and the 15-test STAAR will lose its luster in time to end some testing for 2012-2013. For now, she's taking it one phone call at a time to keep up the pressure on the legislature.

Stay tuned.

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