As Texas officials consider overhauling the state’s standardized test, parents and school officials are calling for diminishing the test’s punitive nature while making the questions more appropriate to students’ grade levels.
The 15-member Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability has been tasked with making recommendations to lawmakers by September on how students should be tested each year and how school districts and campuses should be graded based on academic performance. The commission — prompted in large part by criticism of the test’s rigor and stagnant student performance — could call for improvements to the current State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, more commonly known as STAAR, or replace it altogether.
Some of the ideas that educators, advocates and parents have shared with the American-Statesman include:
- Assessing students more frequently but on a smaller scale throughout the year.
- Shortening the state curriculum standards that the tests cover.
- Removing the requirement that students pass the test to graduate.
- Moving the test online.
- Replacing high school students’ end-of-course exams with the SAT or ACT.
“A lot of people want multiple measures. They don’t want … just that one assessment on that one day,” said State Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, who is spearheading a series of public events across the state to gather feedback for the commission. People feel “that we put tremendous amount of effort into having these assessments and yet the feedback that comes to people is nothing that means anything to them or the students,” she said.
Although it’s too early to tell whether any of the ideas suggested by stakeholders are viable or when they would go into effect, the commission’s next meeting in Austin on Feb. 23 will allow members of the public to offer input.
Changes to the STAAR
Since the STAAR rolled out in 2012, the percentage of Texas students who have passed the test has remained relatively flat, even as passing standards haven’t substantially changed. In 2015, between 64 percent and 78 percent of third- through eighth-graders statewide passed all subjects, with differences of only a few points from the year before.
Although passing standards were originally supposed to increase every year, the state has backtracked and made other changes to the STAAR, making it the most inconsistent standardized assessment in the state’s testing history, according to Texas Education officials at the testing commission’s first meeting on Jan. 20.
Those changes include shaving down the number of end-of-course exams high school students must to pass to graduate from 15 to five. The state will shorten the length of the tests in the third through eighth grade this year while a new testing vendor, the New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service, will be administering the STAAR this year instead of Pearson Education. The state last year also suspended the requirement that fifth- and eighth-graders had to pass the math STAAR to move on to the next grade.
Theresa Trevino, head of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and a member of the testing commission, wants the next assessment to remove the high-stakes requirement that students must pass the test to be promoted to the next grade and to graduate from high school. Her group, made up of mostly parents, helped lobby successfully for a law passed last year that allows high school students who fail up to two end-of-course exams to appeal to a committee of their teachers, parents and administrators to graduate.
“Our standpoint is that using it as a measure of growth — a tool and diagnostic — to help the teachers is fine. Making it high stakes really is punitive and creates a real negative effect,” she said.
Area school superintendents also say the state curriculum standards on which the STAAR is based are too expansive to cover in a school year, forcing teachers to teach to the test and without much depth. Teachers want the standards to be streamlined and test questions to be grade appropriate, said Dwain York, superintendent of the Wimberley school district.
The state board is currently working on reducing the number of English language arts and reading standards, Bahorich said.
“The teacher doesn’t have enough time. From day one when they enter school to the day that we are STAAR testing them … it’s like a mad race,” York said.
STAAR scores aren’t returned until the summer. To give students and parents more immediate feedback, the Association of Texas Professional Educators suggests moving the tests online or giving students a series of smaller assessments throughout the year to create an end-of-the-year profile on how the student did overall.
Bill Hammond with the Texas Association of Business — a proponent of rigorous state testing — said the problem isn’t with the number of curriculum standards or the test’s high-stakes nature. He said the scoring system doesn’t provide a good gauge of whether students are prepared for college or a career after high school.
The state system allows school districts to use students’ two highest STAAR test results to count toward postsecondary readiness, allowing for inflated figures, Hammond said.
At least 86 percent of school districts met the state’s measure of postsecondary readiness in 2015. But only 38 percent to 64 percent of ACT test-takers in Texas met college readiness benchmarks in any of the subject tests.
“Everybody gets a trophy even though they rode the bench the whole season,” Hammond said of the state’s grading system.
A better system would create a college and career cutoff score far above the passing score, Hammond said.
Hammond said he would support mandating that all high school students take the ACT or SAT to measure college and career readiness. The recent national Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind has a provision that lets states measure high school achievement with such tests.
“They can create a test that will indicate the probability of success at a community college without taking remedial courses,” Hammond said. “It’ll take some work, but it’s not that hard.”