When the 83rd Texas Legislature convenes Jan. 8, lawmakers will be asked to consider legislation that would reduce or eliminate the effect the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test has on high school students’ grades.
The bill is being drafted by a grassroots coalition, Texans Advocating Meaningful Student Assessments, formed in January by Anderson High School parents.
“The way testing is done under STAAR takes all the joy, all the creativity and love of learning out of our classrooms. Because so much depends on the test scores, kids are no longer learning to think critically. They just learn to be test-taking machines,” said TAMSA member Dineen Majcher, who has a 10th grade student at Anderson.
Students in third through ninth grades took the STAAR test for the first time in March. The ninth-grade class that just finished the school year is the first to have to pass up to 15 end-of-course exams, among other thresholds put in place by lawmakers, to graduate high school.
In its appeal to the Legislature, TAMSA will be joined by nearly 500 Texas school districts—including the Austin, Round Rock and Pflugerville ISDs—that have signed a resolution stating their disapproval of high-stakes testing and asking lawmakers to re-examine the 2009 law that led to the creation of STAAR.
TAMSA, along with some other critics of STAAR, say they are not against standardized tests. Rather, they do not agree with the level of stakes that are now tied to them.
Unlike the state’s previous standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills—which students needed to pass at various grade levels to graduate—STAAR has several tiers of requirements. One of those requirements is that STAAR end-of-course tests, taken only by ninth through 11th graders, count for 15 percent of students’ final grades.
While details of TAMSA’s bill are still being worked out, Majcher said it would definitely get rid of the 15 percent rule, as the rule places an unreasonable amount of pressure on students.
Anderson High School Principal Donna Houser said educators are also feeling the pressure.
“The accountability over the years has become more invasive upon the curriculum focus,” she said. “In other words, the curriculum is being modified to meet the demands of the test rather than the test assessing what should be taught in that core curriculum.”
Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the TEA encourages teachers to focus on the state curriculum.
Beyond the classroom time being dedicated to test preparation is also the large expenses that come it, critics said.
Anderson allocates $26,000 each year, about 15 percent of its annual budget, to test preparation. AISD is spending nearly $500,000 on remediation courses this summer for students who did not pass one or more of the tests, spokeswoman Erin Moore said. Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature has cut education funding by $5.4 billion statewide.
Fifteen percent rule
At the urging of some lawmakers, TEA Commissioner Robert Scott allowed districts to delay the 15 percent rule for the 2011–12 school year. Of Texas’ 1,235 districts, 1,150, or 93 percent, took Scott up on his offer.
“It was really hard for us to prepare for the test, and the fact that they even considered making it 15 percent of our grade was just absurd to me,” said Kameron Schultz, a 15-year-old sophomore at Anderson.
Unless legislators amend the statute or adopt a different one at the 2013 general session—or the incoming TEA commissioner (Scott announced in May his resignation effective July 2) finds a way to defer the 15 percent rule for another year—high school students taking the test next spring will see their final grades, as well as their GPA and class rank, affected by the results.
Skin in the game
Since the birth of accountability ratings in Texas in 1993, the average four-year graduation rate for state public schools has risen from an estimated 66.1 percent in 1995–96 to 75.4 percent in 2009–10, the most recent data available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Experts interviewed for this article said there is no scientific data that links standardized test scores and academic performance, but Drew Scheberle, senior vice president for education and talent development at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the improvement in the graduation rate is because students now have skin in the game.
“If everything was so wonderful without high-stakes testing, why was it that in our inner cities, 80 percent of our students were failing basic tests of literacy and numeracy?” he asked.
The problem with STAAR, Scheberle said, is not the stakes but the way TEA implemented the test. Educators were given a limited amount of material to help prepare students and even now run the risk of losing their teaching license if they ask a student what was on the test.
One Anderson biology teacher compensated for the insufficiency of material by spending the bulk of winter break going through more than 1,600 test questions on a New York exam created by Pearson, the company that put together STAAR, Houser said.
The teacher assessed the questions based on what students are expected to learn in Texas and then began every class with a warm-up question. Students who did not get the warm-up question correct spent their lunch period going over the subject matter and had to answer a similar question correctly to receive participation points.
Test results, released in June, indicate this type of rigorous preparation paid off. Anderson ranked higher than the 90th percentile in biology statewide. The school also scored above the 90th percentile in algebra I, algebra II, geometry and world geography.
However, Ratcliffe said the TEA does not endorse repetitive drills and defended the agency’s implementation of the test.
“I believe we have done a good job implementing STAAR given the time limits and legal requirements that are in place,” she said.
Fifty-four percent of Austin ISD ninth- grade students passed the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course writing exam, the lowest passing rate of the five STAAR subjects.
Students performed best in biology, which had an 84 percent passing rate, followed by an 83 percent passing rate in algebra I. Seventy-eight percent of students passed world geography, and 69 percent passed reading.
Students who failed any of the STAAR tests are required to attend EOC, or end-of-course, Prep Camp at either Anderson or Bowie high schools. The camp runs from 9:15 a.m.–1:45 p.m. daily June 12–29.
Camp attendees will retake in July the tests they did not pass.
The passing score for the reading and writing tests is 65 percent, and 34 percent for the rest of the tests, according to the Texas Education Agency.