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Wimberley-based group gathers 16,000 signatures to change STAAR test

Nancy Andrus decided something was seriously wrong with the standardized tests given to Texas schoolchildren after she found her fourth-grade daughter huddled in her room, crying and convinced she was too stupid to pass the math exam at the end of the year.

Andrus, who spent thousands of dollars for up to five hours of tutoring a week to help her daughter, says the tests, which start in the third grade, are piling too much stress too soon on children.

“I don’t know that we can go through another year like we just did and have her self-confidence be so in the toilet, and this is an honor roll student,” Andrus said. “It’s just totally demoralizing.”

Andrus has joined a coalition of Wimberley parents and teachers asking lawmakers to shorten and simplify the 3-year-old State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, given to third- through eighth-graders.

Although the Wimberley school district has one of the highest STAAR passing rates in Central Texas — 89 percent in 2014 — Jacob’s Well Elementary School Principal Andrea Gonzales helped start the group after hearing concerns from both parents and teachers. Parents complained that children are too stressed by the test, which takes them up to four hours a day to complete. And the teachers felt burdened with teaching an increasing number of math concepts to prepare for it.

As of Friday, an online petition the group started in November had more than 16,000 signatures from supporters statewide.

The Wimberley group hopes for the same success that high school parents from across the state had in the last legislative session, when the number of STAAR tests that must be passed by high school graduates was narrowed from 15 to five. This year, parents and teachers want to shorten the four-hour cap on the test that is given to elementary and middle school students, decrease the number of math concepts covered in each grade and simplify math questions.

“If the test were reasonable, it would give us back instructional time and would be fair to students,” Gonzales said during a recent coalition meeting of more than 60 parents and teachers.

Most of the STAAR requirements are passed down by elected officials and vetted by educators and the Texas Education Agency.

“It is a process that is a national model. It should be noted that each time our state has chosen to increase rigor in the classroom, our students and educators have exceeded that bar,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Ratcliffe said the four-hour limit on the STAAR is supposed to give students who work more slowly enough time to finish it. The vast majority of students finish each test in under three hours, she said.

“TEA set the time limit after discussing various time options with about 2,000 district testing coordinators and others involved with testing at the December 2011 State Assessment Conference,” Ratcliffe said. “Most of the people there thought that most children would finish STAAR tests in two hours.”

Jamie Thibodeaux, a third-grade teacher at Jacob’s Well, said the test has created such pressure that her students have had trouble sleeping and become nauseous before taking it. She plays “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Eye of the Tiger” for them to ease their nerves on test day.

The number of math concepts covered in the third-grade test grew from 33 to 46 this year. Several concepts, including multiplying and dividing fractions, are now taught in the fourth grade. They used to be taught in the sixth grade, another Jacob’s Well teacher said.

“I am so tired of doing this to 8- and 9-year-olds,” said Thibodeaux, who said teachers are not given enough time to cover the necessary concepts in depth.

The state acknowledged in August that it had problems implementing a more challenging math curriculum and announced that students in the fifth and eight grades will not have to pass the math STAAR to move on to the next grade.

The Wimberley coalition is asking for support for bills filed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to simplify the test and make it shorter.

State Rep. Jason Isaac, a Republican whose district includes Wimberley, has filed another bill that would allow districts to pick a standardized test other than the STAAR.

Last legislative session, then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill that had many of the elements of what the coalition wanted, saying it had “the potential to de-emphasize the majority of these important curriculum standards in the classroom.”

Gonzales points to the parents of high school students who led last year’s successful push.

“If high school parents were loud, elementary parents can get loud, too,” Gonzales said.

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