Here’s Every Way This Year’s STAAR Test Screwed Texas Schools (So Far)

From deleted answers to missing test books, Texas’ new test vendor almost left us pining for Pearson. Almost.

Texas’ standardized testing program wasn’t exactly popular before the 2015-2016 school year, but this year’s State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) has been an especially frustrating experience for Texas students, parents and school officials. New testing contractor Educational Testing Service, in the first year of a four-year, $280 million contract to administer the STAAR, has seemed overwhelmed by the task: It misdelivered tests, lost records of test answers, and took weeks longer than promised to deliver test scores. Meanwhile, new Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are under fire for how they’ve handled the STAAR so far, with critics saying they haven’t adequately recognized the magnitude of the problems schools faced — some of which, like missing student records and an unfinished website for teachers to access test data, were apparent even before the tests even arrived.

The march to the Capitol before the Save Texas Schools rally.
Patrick Michels
Texas’ standardized testing fight has been raging for years. Here, protesters march to the Capitol before the Save Texas Schools rally in 2013.

It can be tough to keep track of all that’s gone wrong, so here’s a blow-by-blow of the biggest problems schools faced with STAAR this year:

A new law required this year’s tests to be shorter — but they weren’t.

Under a law passed in 2015, Texas’ standardized tests must be designed so that elementary students can finish them in under two hours, and middle schoolers can finish in less than three. Last October, then-TEA Commissioner Michael Williams announced that the test for 2015-2016, which had already been written, wouldn’t be shortened to comply with the law; instead, the state would give itself a one-year grace period and plan for a shorter test next year.

In May, a group of parents sued TEA in Travis County, claiming that this year’s STAAR was out of line with the law, and that all students’ scores should be destroyed. If lawmakers wanted TEA to wait a year before writing a shorter test, the parents argued, then the law would have said so. The lawsuit is still in preliminary stages, and likely won’t see a court hearing before July.

Tests had questions with no right answer.

At the last minute, ETS reportedly told one district that the high school English I test included a question with no right answer. Officials there were told that students should just leave the question blank, according to a letter from Houston-area superintendents complaining about widespread testing problems. As difficult as it must have been to get that message out to every English I classroom in the district, ETS reportedly never bothered, according to the school official who wrote that “Something of that magnitude should have been broadcast to the entire state.”

Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25. opt-out movement
Patrick Michels
A dissatisfied public school student at a Save Texas Schools rally.

ETS mailed test books to the wrong schools.

In May, Austin ISD administrators worked overtime to prepare for test day because the test books arrived late. In another case, tests were mistakenly sent to a church, then finally delivered to a school “in the back of a pickup covered with a tarp,” according to an administrator’s complaint. Another school official complained about receiving test materials for a nearby district. “ETS said they would take care of it, but they didn’t, so I drove it to the neighboring district.”

These days, schools treat test booklets as carefully as crime scene evidence or briefcases of cash; such security is normal in the wake of high-profile cheating scandals. But school officials complained that ETS seemed generally unconcerned with security, in one case shipping booklets in an unmarked Home Depot box. According to the complaints, ETS’ cavalier attitude was in keeping with a larger trend: school officials received emails from ETS including students’ social security numbers and birth dates — sometimes for students in other school districts.

Kids’ answers were deleted.

All over the state, kids taking an online version of the STAAR were surprised to see, when they finished the test, that many of their answers had gone missing. A comprehensive count put the number of students affected at 14,220; many of them had been taking the online test as part of a special accommodation for a disability. It was an early sign of trouble for ETS, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman in March. Morath announced that students whose answers were lost wouldn’t be penalized for low scores, and schools could decide whether to test the kids again. This was the first time Morath suggested that ETS’s new contract would depend on its performance through the rest of the test season, which, of course, has not been stellar.

School officials had an impossible time getting answers from ETS when they had problems on test day.

During the most stressful time of the school year, when kids’ graduation hopes, teachers’ salaries and schools’ ratings all hinge on just a few days, school administrators say they spent hours on the phone with the ETS help line when, say, students’ answers got deleted or their records wouldn’t show up.

“Have emailed six times with no resolution,” one wrote in a list of complaints from the group of superintendents. “I have been on hold for 45 minutes to 2 hours.” “They make up answers just to get me off the phone,” said another. “I have no confidence in the response I get because the response varies depending on when I call and who I speak with.” Sometimes, one wrote, advice from TEA conflicted with directions from ETS.

Boxes of completed tests were apparently lost in the mail.

On June 9, the Texas Tribune reported on an email from Bill Bechtol, an assistant superintendent at Eanes ISD in Travis County, telling principals that “ETS has lost all of our boxes of scoreable results for (grades) 3-8! … ETS agrees that they received the boxes. They just don’t know what they have done with them.” ETS responded with a statement that the test results “are not lost and will be reported,” but Bechtol told principals later that day that he had “been notified by ETS that our tests have been misplaced.” On Tuesday, Eanes ISD spokeswoman Claudia McWhorter told the Observer that the district is still waiting for its test scores, or for news that its tests been found. “To my knowledge, they have not told us any kind of update,” she said.

Short-answer essays were scored too low.

Lewisville ISD officials noticed that an unusual number of high school English students were getting zero scores on a short-answer portion of the test. The district sent a few tests back to ETS for re-scoring, at a cost of $25 per test, and in 33 cases the students’ scores went up. The district asked TEA for help paying to have its tests re-scored, but the state (so far, anyway) has not paid. A district spokeswoman said Lewisville ISD has now sent a total of 701 tests back to ETS to be scored again. Most Texas high schoolers take the English test in the spring. When all those scores are in, which will happen by early July, the problem could be more widespread.

Other school officials have complained that certain test scores seemed far too low this year. One wrote that kids who normally score at the highest level in English were given zeroes. In an email passed along to Morath, Northside ISD Assistant Superintendent Rob Thornell suggested that auditing this year’s test scores would be “extremely important.”

A boy yells, "Save our schools!" through a megaphone at the Save Texas Schools rally.
Patrick Michels
A boy yells, “Save our schools!” through a megaphone at the Save Texas Schools rally.

Schools and students got their scores long after they were supposed to. Some are still waiting.

Some students’ scores from the fall testing season were still missing from reports in the spring. Test scores should have been back in time for schools to see which students passed the tests required to graduate and which need to enroll in summer school. In some cases, kids re-took the same test in the spring just in case they hadn’t passed the first time. Morath has given ETS until July 5 to have all the scores returned to schools. He has also given 5th and 8th graders a pass from the usual requirement to pass the STAAR in order to move up a grade — which some STAAR-watchers have taken as a sign of Morath’s lack of faith in this year’s results.

Where does this leave Texas students, teachers and schools?

The Texas Association of School Administrators has asked Morath not to use this year’s test scores to rate schools. In an open letter to Morath published in the Houston Chronicle, Ben Becker — part of the parents’ group that sued TEA claiming this year’s test is too long — said that Morath owes “the people of Texas a transparent accounting” of this year’s problems, otherwise, “you must throw out all the scores, order them expunged from student records, and assure they are not used for any decision-making. Anywhere. Period.”

Morath responded to Becker, telling him that while the spring test scores will be late, he believes they’ll still be accurate. Morath’s staff apparently drafted an apology letter to parents in April, according to the emails obtained by the Observer, but is waiting to send it once all of the spring test results are out — which now won’t happen until early July.

State Senator Kel Seliger, who has praised Morath for his leadership so far, has told the Amarillo Globe-News that Texas simply shouldn’t pay ETS for its work on this year’s STAAR. Whatever action Morath takes to hold ETS accountable after this year, lawmakers are certain to have their own ideas for reforming STAAR when they reconvene in January.

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

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Published at 7:45 am CST