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STAAR writing test a big step backward

By Melissa McCann Cooper - Special to the American Statesman

“Your composition does not have to completely fill the page; however, it must not be longer than one page. Do not write outside the box on the lined page, and do not add lines to your written composition page.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I read these words from the fifth or sixth page of instructions to seventh-graders taking the writing State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test on April 2. One page of writing — 26 lines — and an admonition not to deviate from very narrow parameters struck me as a metaphor for the testing machine in Texas.

If the goal was to create a more rigorous assessment, STAAR has failed. STAAR’s predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), required students to write a two-page, well-elaborated essay. Those who followed a basic formula (introduction, explain your topic in detail, conclusion) scored reasonably well. TAKS didn’t produce the Great American Novel, but it expected students to generate and organize coherent, connected examples on a particular topic. They were also encouraged to write with style, including complex sentence structure and engaging vocabulary in their essays. Throughout the year, I taught my students to be effective writers, and on test day they simply had to apply those skills to whatever topic was given to them.

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