Test Score Woes in Lewisville Could Signal More STAAR Trouble Across Texas

School district will spend over $50,000 to check for more erroneous scores.

Lewisville ISD, a leader in standardized testing reform, could be the canary in Texas' education coal mine when it comes to problems with ETS, the state's new testing contractor.
Patrick Michels
Lewisville ISD, a leader in standardized testing reform, could be the canary in Texas' education coal mine when it comes to problems with ETS, the state's new testing contractor.

Weeks after more than 14,000 students across Texas found that their answers on a state-required test had been accidentally deleted, administrators in Lewisville schools are working to determine the scope of a separate problem. In this case, some high school English students’ short handwritten answers were incorrectly scored zero, jeopardizing their chances to graduate.

Administrators in Lewisville noticed the problem with the high school English tests the district administered in December. In a few cases, the zero scores put students below a passing grade on the STAAR exam, which the state requires for high school graduation. Unlike most school districts, Lewisville ISD gives its high school English exams in the fall semester, which means the district may be among the first to recognize problems that will prove more widespread after the spring test results come back in June.

Lewisville has already paid the state’s test vendor, Educational Testing Service, $3,225 to review the suspicious scores, 20 percent of which came back with a higher grade. On Monday, the Lewisville Independent School District board approved spending up to $48,250 more to review all of the tests it believes could have been mis-scored.

The Lewisville Texan Journal reported Monday that board members were, in the words of one member, “flat ticked off” about footing the bill to have ETS double-check its own grading.

“It’s totally unacceptable,” school board member Brenda Latham said at Monday night’s meeting, according to the Journal. “We have to at some point stand up and say, ‘Sorry, we’re not playing this game anymore.’”

The district first suspected problems when administrators noticed that 17 percent of its English I test-takers received zero scores on their short-answer questions, double the rate of zeros on the previous year’s test. When they compared students’ scores on the short answer section to their scores on the longer essay questions, they found 76 percent of the students who scored zero on short answer questions also scored passing grades on their essays.

With those concerns in mind, the district sent 162 tests back to ETS to have them re-scored at $25 per test. After the reevaluation, 33 of those scores went up, Lewisville ISD spokesperson Amanda Brim told the Observer. Three additional students passed the test as a result of the re-scoring, and six others moved up from passing to “advanced.”

In a statement about the incorrect scoring, Brim wrote that the district believes “that one student negatively impacted by flawed grading of a faulty state-mandated assessment required for graduation, is one too many.” Her statement goes on:

“Beyond our specific concerns surrounding English I and II EOC short answer scoring, we have broader reservations about what this means for the integrity of the testing system in general, especially in light of the way campuses and districts are rated based solely on the results of the scores on these tests.”

Brim said the district shared its concerns with Texas Education Agency (TEA) back in January, and was told “to trust the process and submit scores to retest.” Now that they’ve done so, and seen so many tests returned with different scores, the district has asked the state to reimburse it for the cost of retesting even more.

Lewisville ISD has been an agitator for testing reform for years. The suburban Dallas district was the first in the state to pass a now-widely adopted board resolution arguing that high-stakes testing is detracting from more meaningful education. Lewisville ISD is also part of a consortium of districts the state charged with developing new models for public schools. And one of member of its school board, Kristi Hassett, is also on the board of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), which successfully lobbied the 2013 Legislature for a dramatic decrease in high school testing.

Texas education leaders are already looking critically at the current system of high-stakes tests. In 2013, the Legislature dramatically scaled back the amount of testing in high school, and in 2015 lawmakers called for a third-party evaluation of the STAAR test’s validity. The report, completed in early April, is generally favorable, though board members will take a closer look in July. New Education Commissioner Mike Morath has suggested he’d like to move to a system with shorter tests throughout the school year, so that no one test would weigh as heavily on students’ graduation chances or schools’ ratings.

Lewisville ISD’s complaints are less clear-cut than the software screw-up that wreaked such havoc on 14,000 tests with deleted answers back in March, but they get to a more fundamental problem with high-stakes testing: that school ratings, teacher salaries and even students’ ability to graduate can come down to imprecise and unreliable scoring.

TAMSA and other critics have raised concerns that the graders scoring the written sections are forced to rush through their deliberations, and Pearson, which previously managed Texas’ tests, was once lambasted for recruiting its test scorers off Craigslist. Their calls to oust Pearson were satisfied last May when the state handed most of its contract to ETS.

But ETS, which stands to make $280 million running Texas’ tests over the next four years, failed its first big trial with the March tests. In that case, the response from the new education commissioner was swift and fierce. Morath, a former software developer who briefly led a statewide commission on test reform before his current job, called the failure “unacceptable,” and suggested that ETS’s contract was on the line. “Educational Testing Service is not new to administering assessments on a large-scale basis,” he said, “so I cannot accept the transition to a new testing vendor as an excuse for what occurred.”

TEA’s response to the issues with Lewisville’s tests has been more measured. The agency hasn’t yet replied to questions from the Observer, but TEA spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe told the Journal that “We are working with the test contractor, ETS, to get a full explanation about what caused the unusually high number of zero scores on the December tests.”

It’s an issue education watchers can expect to hear a lot more about if other districts find the same problem when their scores come back in June.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

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Published at 2:27 pm CST