New School Testing System Gets Failing Grade at House Hearing

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Months after Texas students sat for the first round of STAAR, Texas’ new public school assessments have students, teachers, parents and some lawmakers concerned. At a public hearing at the Capitol Tuesday, they all got their digs in.

The tests were given this spring, replacing the TAKS in grades 3 to 12, and the results were released earlier this month. The STAAR tests are considerably harder than standardized tests Texas has used in the past, putting extra pressure on teachers and students. Just 55 percent of ninth graders passed the writing exam this spring.

At a public hearing Tuesday, Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg said the new standardized testing is fundamentally flawed. She said some small districts had to borrow staff from other schools just to have enough teachers to administer the tests.

“People have this idea that when we are testing in 7th grade, the 8th grade is moving on as usual,” Bamberg said. She said 8th grade teachers also had to help administer the test, breaking up the regular class schedule.

Bamberg told members of the House Public Education Committee that implementing the test puts a tremendous stress on teachers, administration and students.

“We are not against accountability,” she said. “We just want it more user-friendly for our children and parents.”

Amarillo ISD Superintended Rod Schroder complained that the STAAR is not diagnostic. He said the new form of testing is harder to implement and it adds too much pressure on people involved.

“I think we need to move to a different testing system. We have got to figure out some way to reduce the tests and bring down the pressure from the system,” Schroder said.

The superintendents said their teachers and students are left to simply guess why they performed the way they did.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, and committee members also worried about the complicated scoring system Texas has created for the tests, making it tough to glean straight answers about how students are doing.

Even “passing” the test is a fluid definition under STAAR, because the Texas Education Agency will raise the passing bar each of the next three years. Eighty-one percent of students passed the world geography test this year, because getting 40 percent of the questions right was enough to “pass.” Under the passing standard set for three years from now, only 40 percent of Texas students would have passed.

Svannah Kumar, a graduate of Anderson High School, said the standardized tests are very problematic because they are cumulative. Students have to make a passing grade (defined by the state) on 15 end-of-course exams, over the course of high school, in order to graduate. This year’s ninth graders are the first ones on the hook.

“In a way, that is really hurting students,” Kumar said.

Students who did not pass their STAAR exams have a chance to take it two more times before they graduate. They can also enroll in summer camps, which help them prepare for their next STAAR tests—an added expense for schools, as districts are already learning.

Another graduate of Anderson, David Engleman said colleges don’t necessarily look at standardized test scores when looking at admission applications.

“They have determined ways to assess that without using this data,” Engleman said.

He said most colleges prefer SAT and ACT scores over standardized test results.

Next year, though, the state is set to pile the STAAR stakes even higher, when the STAAR end-of-course exam will be worth 15 percent of a student’s final grade in a class. The so-called “15 percent” rule was pushed back to next year after an outcry from parents and teachers.

There’s no sign that cry is going to die down. In fact, 543 school districts—nearly half of the districts in Texas—have passed a resolution against the kind of high-stakes standardized testing culture STAAR represents.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, stood by the “15 percent rule” despite that outcry, and said there’s room to fine-tune STAAR delivery after its first year.

Committee chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, lost his primary race last month and won’t be around the Capitol in 2013. But he and other committee members said that after STAAR’s debut left so many unhappy, the Legislature will have to look at reworking the system in 2013.

 

Note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version, which mischaracterizes the role of complaints about TAKS field testing in the switch to STAAR.