Drops in Texas STAAR scores raise questions — and testing angst

July 10, 2017
Sheets are mailed to homes with the students’ STAAR results for science, math and reading. Nell Carroll/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Texas students did worse on state standardized tests this year on all subjects except for math.

The percentages of students who passed the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness in the spring were lower in most subjects compared with last year’s results. Students struggled the most on reading and English tests, with the statewide passing rate for fourth-graders dropping 7 percentage points to 70 percent.

Student performance in the Austin school district decreased in nearly every subject in grades three through eight, with the exception of third-grade math. The Texas Education Agency had not posted district-level high school scores by Monday afternoon.

Austin middle schoolers did worse than the state average — nearly half of seventh-grade students failed the math test this year. Sixth-grade reading plummeted 8 percentage points from last year to 66 percent passing and has dropped 10 percentage points since 2014.

“As always, this is just one way we measure how our schools are doing,” the district said in a statement issued in response to questions. “We will continue to focus on the whole child as we equip them with the skills for success in college, career and life.”

Laura Callahan, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, called the results a mixed bag.

“There were some scores that went down, and we just continue to do the work” to improve them, she said.

LOOK UP YOUR SCHOOL: Texas accountability ratings, 2016

New tool to help students

The test is designed to get slightly more difficult each year, but the difficulty did not change from last year.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has been traveling around the state over the past few weeks to promote a revamped STAAR report card for parents to help students boost their testing performance. The new online portal shows how students answered each STAAR question this past school year and how they’ve progressed year over year, and it provides extra resources to help students master skills for questions that they missed.

The buildup of the portal will cost the state $4.3 million over the next five years.

Many Austin-area school districts contacted for this story say they haven’t had a chance to analyze the data and are not sure what conclusions to draw from the scores, which reflect a statewide trend.

The stagnant performance statewide has led to parent groups and lawmakers calling for the reduction of STAAR tests, though attempts to do so failed during the past legislative session.

Theresa Treviño, head of the parent group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, said this year’s scores show that the test covers material that is more advanced than what students are learning in school. Her group has been advocating more grade-appropriate tests and the removal of policies that hold students back a grade level for not passing the STAAR.

“This has me concerned that we are testing how well a student takes a test rather than the knowledge that they know, and that’s been our concern all along with the STAAR test,” Treviño said.

Call for more collaboration, resources

Sandy Kress, a policy consultant who was a senior education adviser to then-President George W. Bush, said a primary reason for the lackluster test scores in Texas is an inconsistent school accountability system that undergoes changes nearly every year. Since the STAAR was implemented five years ago, the number of mandated tests has been cut back, and the state has changed how it grades school districts.

Kress added that a lack of collaboration among education stakeholders to improve student performance and insufficient resources to help teachers teach and students learn have also contributed to what he considers poor STAAR scores.

“I am talking kind of tough, but I’m talking more resources and more help and collaboration,” Kress said.

Drew Scheberle, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for education and policy, said the Legislature continues to reduce its focus on helping students master the basic math and reading skills needed for academic success. He pointed to cuts to the Student Success Initiative, which helps struggling students in small groups. It was cut from $276 million to $41 million in 2011, but some funds were restored later.

“The first round of results of the STAAR test are disappointing, but indicative of what happens when commitment to academic standards and transformative education are lowered,” Scheberle said.

Test scores even dropped in routinely high-performing school districts, such as Eanes, west of Austin. Writing scores in the fourth grade fell 5 percentage points to 86 percent passing.

Likewise, while still exceeding the state average in every subject area and grade level, Dripping Springs showed drops in reading and fourth-grade writing. Superintendent Bruce Gearing said in a statement that he will look at the latest scores in the context of a number of academic measures.

“More of our students are at the ‘meets’ or ‘advanced’ level by almost double the state standard,” Gearing said. “We are focused on other measures of student engagement and success.”

Maritza Gallaga, Round Rock’s associate director of communications, pointed out that her district has consistently outperformed the state average, including this year, but noted that Round Rock’s scores have been relatively stable.

“Generally speaking, the fluctuations in increasing and decreasing scores have been less extreme for our district over the course of the STAAR program,” Gallaga said.

The Manor school district continues to struggle, posting lower scores in most categories, but made improvements in third-grade reading and third- and fourth-grade math.

District leaders said they are putting in new programs this fall that they believe will lead to academic gains. The district will launch two New Tech schools on new elementary and middle school campuses, transform three current schools into fine arts academies, and initiate the process for four others to get International Baccalaureate certification.