Texas education commissioner says he favors smaller-scale tests

As the state considers replacing its standardized testing system, Texas’ top education official said Tuesday that he envisions assessing students on a smaller scale throughout the year.

Mike Morath, a former Dallas school district trustee who was appointed Texas education commissioner in December, spoke before the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability. The 15-member group has been tasked with making recommendations to lawmakers by Sept. 1 to improve or replace the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, and how school districts and students are held accountable.

In what might be his first public stance on standardized testing as education commissioner, Morath told commission members that he wants to explore whether it’s possible to implement a series of smaller computer-based assessments, so that teachers are given immediate feedback on how students are performing and can adapt their instruction, and the state is given holistic profiles of students at the end of the year.

“The idea of using a continuous, but low-touch formative assessment throughout the course of the year and then building a summative picture from that has a great deal of merit in my mind,” Morath said. “When you start looking at the state mandating one specific approach in every classroom, it becomes problematic.”

Many school districts have developed and used their own system of diagnostic measures administered throughout the year, and teacher groups like the Association of Texas Professional Educators support Morath’s idea.

Since the STAAR was first administered in 2012, parents and school district officials have criticized it for failing to give sufficient and timely feedback as well as being too rigorous and too high stakes. High school students must pass five end-of-course STAAR exams to graduate and fifth- and eighth-graders must pass their respective exams to move on to the next grade. A law passed last year 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.

Too many state curriculum standards are tested on the STAAR, forcing teachers to teach to the test and without any depth, critics also say.

Those complaints were brought up to the commission again Tuesday with more than 20 people signing up to speak.

Nicole Oman of Taylor said that her son, who is dyslexic, failed the English II end-of-course STAAR three times — once by one question — and dropped out of high school three months shy of graduation. Oman said the tests should be diagnostic rather than punitive.

“I cannot tell you and express to you enough the amount of stress and pressure this test placed on my son,” Oman said. “It is like a big bully at school just ripping your child up to shreds.”

Cynthia Ruiz, an English teacher in Pflugerville, said there are students on her campus who have failed the English I end-of-course STAAR up to nine times.

She said that students are overtested and that testing is driving instruction.

“The redundancy of requiring to take a five-hour English test in both their freshman and sophomore year is a waste of time and money and is draining our teachers and students,” Ruiz said.

Commission members also heard recommendations to consider improving state standards that measure if a student is ready for college or careers and testing a sample number of students each year instead of all students.

Invited representatives from companies that administer the SAT and ACT told commissioners that several states are using their tests in lieu of state and federally developed standardized tests.

Commission member and state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, asked whether the state’s version of the SAT, called the Texas Success Initiative assessment, typically administered to students looking to enter community college, could replace the bemoaned STAAR end-of-course exams.

The next commission meeting will be March 23.

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