A Question of Balance

“I believe that testing is good for some things, but the system we have created has become a perversion of its original intent – the intent to improve teaching and learning.”   Robert Scott, Texas Commissioner of Education (2007-2012)

Our former commissioner got it right. The intent of assessing students is so that we may improve our understanding of what we teach and how we teach it. Our results should inform our decision-making about how we do our work with students.  

There are some things we know about teaching and learning.  Many of those ideas have been discussed in some of the previous posts on this page. For example; we know that children learn better when they are engaged in their learning.  “Learning better” means students can retain what they have learned and they can apply their learning in a variety of settings. As our community met over the past few years, they have suggested this is the type of learning they want for our kids.

Author and assessment expert John Tanner tells us, “…rising test scores can be indicative of either a teach-to-the-test mentality, … or a policy of ignoring the test, doing what is right for each student, and teaching well and richly.”  So, when test scores are not very good, we are faced with a decision – to continue to move toward providing a rich and engaging education experience or to retreat into the teach-to-the-test-mentality. The temptation to pursue test scores is strong. It would be easy to find schools where they have been able to generate high test scores and copy what they are doing. But for our students that approach would be wrong.   

As education expert Phil Schlechty has pointed out, “We need to accept the fact that efforts to increase engagement may be less productive of quick gains in test scores than some of the drill, review, and test preparation techniques being employed in many of America’s schools. The lasting effects of learning that result from engagement will, however, be profound…”

It is important for us to look at our results and understand what our children understood well and try to repeat how we taught those skills. We also need to study those skills our students failed to understand and to find better ways to teach the information. We will search for others who have done well at providing a “rich and engaging education experience” which was reflected in student success on the STAAR.

In the end, we must remain committed to providing our students the richest and most engaging learning experiences we can provide. To do less would be to cheat our children of the opportunity to reach their full potential. We must balance this effort to offer the best with an understanding of what and how well our students are learning. When we have an understanding of this assessment information, we must put it to use to improve the teaching and learning in our classrooms. 

A Student's Story


As we talk about providing the best education for our students, we spend a great deal of time discussing changes to schools and the reasons for those changes. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine how school would be different for the children we serve. Looking at the school through the eyes of the children we serve may be helpful. Below are the beginnings of the stories of cousins Justin and Jason and their families. They are students in two different school districts. One of the districts has embraced the need for a different type of schooling and the other has not. The fictitious cousins are a composite of the types of students we see every day. 

Graduation is coming soon. About 3,000,000 American seniors will move into the next phase of their lives. Each has a different story about how they got to this point and each will have a different story as they move forward. We all hope for the best for every graduate as they head off into the world.

Justin’s Story

Part One

Justin is a member of the Class of 2015. He sprawls quietly across his seat in class and waits patiently for graduation. It is time to move to the next phase in his life. He daydreams about the coming weekend and he daydreams about his future. He has been a student at Gray ISD his entire life. He lives with his mom and dad and his younger sister. He also has an older sister who graduated in 2012.

Justin is not sure what his future holds, but he knows he wants to do something that makes other people’s lives better. He has enjoyed working with his younger sister, Samantha, who is in the eighth grade. She struggles with her math and Justin helps her with her homework.

Justin also likes to visit his grandmother and help her around the house. It makes him proud when she says how much she appreciates him cleaning up the leaves in her yard and when he helps her pull the weeds in her garden.

Justin's school - then and now.

His grades have always been pretty good. He never got any F’s. He mostly got B’s and C’s throughout high school. He did get a D in Algebra. It wasn’t that it was all that hard, but it was just so boring to Justin. He was a pretty good student in some classes and managed to get a few A’s in some electives like art. He is planning to go to Palo Alto next year, but he’s not sure what he wants to do with his life. His parents have always told him school is important and that he needs to go to college. They want a better life for their children – one where they won’t have to work weekends and never have any time off.  

Justin’s parents never got the chance to go to college. His dad quit school around his junior year. Almost half the students in his school quit before graduation. But, Justin’s dad was pretty lucky because he got a construction job with his cousin and had worked steadily ever since.

His mother graduated and went to work at a Burger King, hoping to save up some money to attend school. After a year or so working she met Justin’s father and they married. After Justin’s older sister Alex was born his mother stayed home to take care of the baby and a couple of years later, Justin was born. Once the children were both in school, she got a job as a home health care assistant. A year later Samantha was born. When the kids were in junior high, Justin’s mom became a Certified Nursing Assistant.

By the time Alex graduated from high school, she knew she was supposed to go to college. She did. She decided to start part time while she worked to pay her way. She took a couple of the basics to get them out of the way. Her second semester, she took chemistry and did not do well. She failed the class. She quit school.

Alex felt much more successful in her job as a waitress and a friend and she had gotten her a job at a rather nice restaurant where she made pretty good tips. She and her friend got an apartment and she seems happy to Justin. He doesn’t understand it when she keeps telling him he needs to go on to college. It seems to him as if she has a pretty good life. She doesn’t have to get up early and drag herself to school and sit in a class and learn a bunch of stuff that nobody cares about.

While Justin will graduate from Gray High School, he must share that distinction with more than 100 others from Gray and over 3 million other students across the country. A higher percentage of students will graduate from high schools than ever before in our history. Justin may go on to college, but the odds are slim he will finish, less than 20% who begin at the community college finish within three years.

About 15 to 20 of his classmates will go off to schools like Texas, A&M, Texas State and Incarnate Word and Our Lady of the Lake.  Justin would have liked to move to a college and live with kids his age, but knew it wasn’t possible. He assumed these classmates were either smarter or that they were richer and could go where they wanted.

Jason’s Story

Part One

Justin’s cousin, Jason, is also a senior and looking forward to graduating. Jason also has a younger sister and an older sister as well.  His older sister, Annie, is serving in the army and his younger sister, Lauren, is in the seventh grade. Jason’s parents were divorced, and he and Lauren live with their mother and their grandparents.

Jason's school. Students are more engaged when learning relates directly to the world they live in. Courtesy edutopia.org

Jason was much like Justin in his earlier years in school. The last few years he has had a different experience than his cousin. He goes to school in a district that doesn’t always teach the same subjects in the way Justin has experienced them. His grades have been very good. He knows he is not smarter that Justin, but he doesn’t mind doing schoolwork since he started going to school in Compass ISD.

As a freshman, Jason really enjoyed designing and building a sleeve that could hold a teacher’s iPad while they walked around in the classroom. It took six weeks for he and his team to design and build the first version of the sleeve. The team used quite a bit of math and also some science to learn the appropriate type and thickness of material needed. They also had to develop the necessary computer skills to generate the design and to have the 3D printer make their prototype. He also had to interview teachers about what their needs were and he had to do research to find out what was already available on the market and how those products met or failed to meet teacher needs.

Over the course of a few more weeks, teachers used the sleeves and provided Jason and his team feedback on what worked and what was missing.  When they finally presented their completed version the teachers applauded their presentation. They were peppered with questions about their process and the results. Jason was very proud of what he had accomplished. Not all of his classes had been this exciting or rewarding, but Jason knew what he wanted to study when he went to college. He wanted to learn to design prosthetic limbs for disabled folks.

Jason has been accepted at three different universities, and he is looking forward to getting started on the next leg of his journey. He has met some other students who returned to campus to help give feedback on his junior – senior project and then there was Mr. Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan was an engineer who had come to hear Jason’s class present their project and had visited with Jason afterwards. He had encouraged Jason to go to A&M and study engineering. Jason was really excited about the idea and the college coordinator had helped him determine that he could actually afford to go there.

The evening went very well. Jason’s mother beamed with pride as Jason and his team talked about how they had analyzed the problem and generated ideas together. The team had developed a plan to help the city reduce its water usage and the city council and the director of the water management department had listened and asked questions. The students had been very thoughtful and polite, and had managed to answer their questions.  Jason’s mom was amazed that her little boy was so knowledgeable and so comfortable talking to these leaders and experts. She had no idea how he knew so much. Jason could feel her pride and it made him proud to have made her feel so good. Jason was very energized and excited about the feedback he’d gotten.

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Empower Today; Inspire Tomorrow:

A Call to Action 

After months of meetings and hours of discussion a group of district stakeholders generated the call to action: Empower Today: Inspire Tomorrow. We owe a great thank you to the stakeholders who participated in helping us as we worked to clarify the direction and goals for our district. These parents, students, teachers, community and board members all committed a great deal of their time to provide input in guiding us into our future.  Beginning in the fall of 2013, these stakeholders participated in the strategic planning process through focus groups and surveys.

By early spring a design team of stakeholders sorted through all of the survey and focus group responses looking for patterns. From these responses they developed a set of beliefs about students and learning. They also generated a learner profile which described the in-school actions students would practice to develop the learner outcomes needed to thrive in the 21st century. Seven goals were established to help guide us to fulfill our call to action.

Empower today: Inspire tomorrow. What does empower mean in a school setting? How would school look different in order to inspire tomorrow? It has been said we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist – that will use technologies that haven’t been invented – in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet. According to the former Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, the top ten jobs of 2010 didn’t exist in 2004.

 The early Apple PDA and the first iPhone from 2007. (Wikipedia)

The early Apple PDA and the first iPhone from 2007. (Wikipedia)

Tomorrow is an uncertain time. Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. Between its introduction and the time a 2007 Lytle graduate completed college more than 250,000 app developers had defined a whole new segment of our economy. Could that student have been taught the specific skills necessary to become an app developer? Not likely. Preparing students for tomorrow is not easy. What we do know is learning specific knowledge will not be as important as learning how to analyze problems, how to create solutions, collaborate with others and how to communicate results.

These facts about our changing world support the idea that schools need to change how students learn to prepare them for life.  These changes are reflected in the beliefs described by stakeholders for our district. In Lytle ISD, we believe that....

· It is necessary to foster student self discovery through innovative teaching efforts

· Learning occurs in an environment built on respectful, trusting relationships.

· Education is not one size fits all.

· Learning happens every day.

· It is important to establish a culture that fosters the joy of learning.

· Work designed for learners promotes an engaging, challenging, and satisfying learning experience.


What is education likely to look like in the future? Take a look.


Rita Pierson, a teacher for 40 years, once heard a colleague say, "They don't pay me to like the kids." Her response: "Kids don't learn from people they don't like.'"

Russell Quaglia talks about what we can learn from students.

When students are able to have a dream about tomorrow and a willingness to work today; they are able to reach their full potential. A national study recently showed there are a few factors that can strongly influence students’ motivation to learn. The study found students are 15 times more likely to be motivated if they are engaged in their learning. Unfortunately, about 40 percent of students do not feel engaged in their learning. Similarly, students are 7 times more likely to be motivated when they feel supported by their teacher, but only 40 percent feel supported by their teacher according to the study. 

If we wish to inspire students to meet the challenges of moving confidently into their future we need to do two things to empower them today.  First, we must create meaningful work that engages and challenges students. Secondly, we need to provide the support necessary for students to be successful in that work.

A Fallen STAAR

Problems with the Texas Assessment System

While we have a done a great deal to provide our students the education needed to pursue a successful and happy life, much work remains to be done. Having accomplished so much in a few years, we knew it was time to develop a new strategic plan to help guide our decisions. Beginning in the fall of 2013, stakeholders from across the district once again gathered to discuss school, learning and life after graduation.

We heard from students, parents, teachers and community leaders about their hopes and dreams for our children. Ideas and opinions were shared. Focus groups were conducted to help folks decide what is important for our students to know and to do to be successful after they leave us. Many skills and “Learner Outcomes” were developed that lead to success in life. Passing the STAAR test did not make the list.  

For many years, the work in the public schools of Texas has focused on passing the state exam, whether it was TAAS, or TAKS or the current STAAR. It has driven the way we teach our students. As former Commissioner of Education, Robert Scott said a couple of years ago, “I believe that testing is good for some things, but the system that we have created has become a perversion of its original intent – the intent to improve teaching and learning.”

The system we have created has made the test results more important than the learning behind the results. Many students across the state have learned to pass the test, but have learned very little they can take with them the following year or on into their lives as adults.  We need to use test results to help us improve teaching and learning, and not our sole measure of success. Many have suggested testing a small group of students. “You don’t have to do blood transfusion to know the health of the body. All you need is a sample.” Another assessment expert has stated,  “Most accountability tests measure what students bring to school, not what they learn once they arrive."

The things students need to be successful in life are not always easy to measure on a multiple choice test. Employers tell us they need people who are creative. They need people who look at situations differently to find new solutions. They also need people who can ask good questions and share their thoughts and ideas with others. How would the question look that could measure one of these skills and offer A, B, C, or D as the best choice for identifying student mastery?

When we limit school to teaching what can be tested on a multiple choice test, we also limit our children’s futures. Other things we value as a family and as a community cannot be measured the same way. A child who can play music, sing, draw or act will not be encouraged to develop their skills if the focus is only on those skills that can be measured on a multiple choice test. The ability to put something together is not measured on our tests, but can be an extremely valuable skill for employers. Whether the child is trustworthy, courageous, kind, persistent or compassionate are all things we value at home and in the workplace, but none are measured by our tests.

It is critical that we do not focus on preparing students to pass a test, but we shift our focus to preparing our children for their life after graduation. This requires a great deal of commitment by everyone with an interest in our children’s futures. As our purpose changes so will the way school looks – especially to the adults. But it is our commitment to move forward to providing an education worthy of all our children.

Embracing a New Way of Learning 

It’s a new school year!  We are thrilled to provide our elementary students with an exciting new place to learn this year. It is not a building designed for the adults in the building, or even the parents or the community.  But it is designed for learners.

School is about our kids. It is not about grown-ups, but about the children we want to be successful and happy adults. It is not about preparing students to pass tests; it is about preparing them for life. In the fall of 2009 the district invited parents, community and students to have a conversation about what our students need and deserve to become happy and productive adults. The groups met several times over several months and learned a lot about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

School has always been about preparing students to take their place in the world, but as the world changes, so must our schools. For most of the 20th century, schools prepared students to work in an Industrial Age. They were taught a lot of “what” – bits of knowledge that only a few were expected to understand. Our schools were designed to create people to work in the jobs of that time. Most jobs were about just doing. Schools did a good job of preparing students for life in the economy of the time.

We now live in a different time. It has been called a Knowledge Age. Students need to know some of the “what”, but they need more than that. Employers tell us they need people who are creative. They need people who look at situations differently to find new solutions. They also need people who can ask good questions and share their thoughts and ideas with others.

photo 3.jpg

After studying and discussing for so many months, the group came to several conclusions about our children and their education. In the end they ranked three priorities for the district to pursue. The three priorities:

  1. Build a new junior high that would support project based learning.
  2. Upgrade the elementary school to accommodate project based learning. 
  3. Provide 1:1 hardware and a wireless network throughout the district within five years.

At the time, the opportunity to achieve these priorities seemed remote if not impossible. The state was cutting their support for public school funding and we hadn’t passed a tax election in many years.

But, with a clear vision for our children’s future, the board and citizens of our community have shown their support for our students and we have met most of the priorities set five years ago. Because of our Board and our community’s vision, Lytle was named Small District of the Year by HEB. The board was recognized as the Region 20 Board of the Year and two different publications wrote features on the board and our use of technology for learning.

Much has changed since those first meetings began five years ago. When we began our conversations, the iPad did not exist. Our students were still taking the TAKS test (STAAR began in 2012). 

We are proud of our board, our community, our parents, our kids and our staff for all we have done together to help move us to a point we could only imagine five short years ago. But the journey is not complete until we are able to insure we are fully able to Empower Today, and Inspire Tomorrow.

Michelle Carroll Smith 

Evan Smith  of the Texas Tribune has a conversation about  student testing with Robert Duron, the state's deputy commissioner of education; Susan Kellner of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment; Tom Pauken of the Texas Workforce Commission; and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Rick Stiggins is a leader in the area of assessment in education. He describes how assessment for learning differs from assessment of learning. Here he describes how each works. 

The following video is an amusing look at what happens when we focus too much on passing STAAR.

Learn more about the Texas accountability system from the perspectives of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Assessment by visiting there website. Click here.

Why Should We Transform?

Many thought leaders in both inside and outside the field of education, believe there are problems with how we provide students school, as we have known it for many years. The following examples are just a few of the many who share these concerns. 

Why don’t traditional schools foster innovative thinking? Tony Wagner outlines how an overemphasis on individual achievement, hyper-specialization, and an aversion to risk have stymied inventiveness and describes what teachers and parents can do to sow the seeds of creativity.

Wagner has identified what he calls a "global achievement gap," which is the leap between what even our best schools are teaching, and the must-have skills of the future students will need to flourish in a new economy.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. Most entertaining video.

Another Sir Ken Robinson. His first TED Talk from 2006.

Dan Pink talks about what motivates people to do well.

Three videos about innovations that are changing our world.



Are we preparing students for their futures or for our past?


Throughout the 2013-2014 school year stakeholders of Lytle ISD met to talk about the type of education we want for our students. We had community members, parents, students and faculty provide feedback and analyze where we are in providing what kids need to be successful in the future. 

Action team members (community, parents, staff & students) came together in January to begin breaking down the initial goals and beliefs the Design Team has outlined.


This first community meeting took place September 23rd with two sessions of feedback.  This is the evening session. Due to copyright, we cannot publish the documentary shown to the group on our websites, but you can read more about the project at:  RACE TO NOWHERE