Texas testing glitches trigger reprieve for students who failed STAAR

Thousands of fifth- and eighth-grade students in Central Texas who failed the state-mandated exams will nonetheless be promoted to the next grade when school starts next week.

State law mandates that they pass the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, tests to move on to the next grade. But in response to a series of mishaps with the state’s new testing vendor, Education Commissioner Mike Morath in June removed the consequences attached to the STAAR, leaving school districts to decide whether students should be held back.

In the Austin school district, only 11 of the more than 2,000 students in fifth and eighth grades who didn’t pass the STAAR exams in reading and math weren’t promoted. There was a similar pattern in neighboring districts; only a handful of students who didn’t pass the exams were kept back in the Round Rock, Leander, Pflugerville and Hays school districts.

If nothing else, the decision to promote the vast majority of these students suggests that the educators who work closest with the children have their own doubts about how much weight Texas typically gives the standardized tests.

And it comes as Texas parents and other advocates continue to gain ground as they argue that the state should stop using such exams for promotions and graduations.

“We see this as a step in the right direction,” said Theresa Treviño, president of the Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, saying more emphasis should be placed on better-trained teachers and a high quality curriculum. “There’s a lot more to it than whether you can pass the test.”

A bigger picture

In deciding who got promoted and who did not, school administrators said they relied on their usual policies, including weighing students’ academic performance for the entire year, content knowledge, attendance and any special circumstances.

“Students were not retained on the basis of STAAR alone,” said Tim Savoy, Hays district spokesman. “Any student retentions had to do with unsatisfactory performance on coursework and not the state assessment.”

It’s unclear how many students would have been retained in the same grade level if Morath had let the state rules stand. While fifth- and eighth-graders must pass the reading and math assessments within three tries to be promoted, the state allows for exceptions. Districts are allowed to form committees of a student’s principal, teacher and parents to determine the grade placement of students if they believe the child’s school performance is satisfactory, aside from the STAAR results.

The extra leeway from the state this year comes in the wake of mishaps by the state’s new testing vendor. Superintendents across Texas questioned the reliability of this year’s standardized tests, pointing to a litany of problems and mishaps they encountered and asking Morath to exclude some scores from their state ratings.

Answers to more than 14,000 state exams were erased because of a computer glitch, and districts complained that a few test questions had no correct answer, that there were errors in scoring and that some exams were reportedly misplaced or delivered late.

More changes coming?

This is the first year that New Jersey-based Education Testing Services administered the tests in Texas after the state dropped Pearson Education, its exclusive standardized testing vendor since 1980. The agency awarded Education Testing Services a four-year, $280 million contract to develop, administer and score the exams.

“I apologize for the continuing problems our students and staff are being forced to deal with because of ongoing reporting issues with our testing vendor,” Morath said this summer. “Kids in the classroom should never suffer from mistakes made by adults.”

A state commission last month approved draft recommendations to lawmakers that would overhaul how Texas tests it students.

The nine major changes include moving the state-mandated exams to a series of individualized computer-based tests that measures student performance throughout the year, reducing the number of tests as required by a revamped federal law and reducing the material students are tested on, among others.

But the commission backpedaled on replacing the current STAAR testing system, saying many districts don’t have the technology needed to make the change.

Treviño served on the commission and was the only member to vote against the recommendations, saying they don’t do enough to limit the high-stakes performance requirements of the state exams.

The Austin district formed grade-placement committees to determine the fate of each student.

“One test is not enough to measure a student’s success,” said Edmund Oropez, the Austin district’s chief officer of teaching and learning. “We value the judgment of our teachers and administration, alongside the student’s parents, who work with our students every day to determine whether a student should be promoted and are ready to succeed at the next level.”

In the past two years, high school students who fail up to two of five final STAAR exams have also received a reprieve from the state. A state law in 2015 allowed school districts to form committees to decide whether to allow those students to graduate despite their struggles on the exams. That law expires in 2017, but it could be revisited by the Legislature.

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