For the good of students, compromise on STAAR exam

The STAAR testing system now faces a formidable backlash, with parents, some business groups, teachers and high-level education experts calling for changes. Such dynamics present an opportunity if opponents and proponents seize the moment to strike a compromise.

School Accountability: For the good of students, compromise on STAAR exam

By Editorial Board of The Austin American Statesman, Nov 22, 2012

It’s time to talk about changes regarding Texas’ high-stakes testing system. That should not mean lowering the bar or abandoning accountability. It should mean improving a system that has become so rigid, punitive and onerous that it falls short in significant ways in attaining the goals of preparing students for college or careers. One very good recommendation is being advanced by Texas’ new education commissioner, Michael Williams.

Williams told the Associated Press that the state’s accountability system still should rely on standardized tests but include other factors, such as how well districts do in closing achievement gaps between minority and white students and factor student progress and preparedness for college in those ratings.

Those changes are overdue. But more needs to be done. Williams and state lawmakers should take a hard look at how Texas’ newest standardized test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, is being used in schools. It has veered so far from its purpose that left unchecked, it might well do more harm than good.

The stakes were high enough under the former testing system, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. High school students who did not pass the exit TAKS were denied diplomas, and schools and districts were yearly graded by the state based largely on test results. Schools that failed to meet state standards for consecutive years faced harsh consequences even when they showed significant progress toward meeting goals.

But there were benefits to the test because it shined a light on the performance of individual student groups, such as Hispanics, African-Americans, economically disadvantaged, white and special education students. That focus exposed educational gaps between minority and white students and between lower and higher income students. Schools were held accountable for performance of all students as well as individual student groups, and as a result, performance of all groups improved. The public had a way through state ratings to judge the quality of public schools. Business groups touted the system as one that would help ensure that students graduating from high school would have the reading, writing and mathematical skills for college or jobs.

In trying to improve on that system, the Legislature in 2009 crafted the tougher STAAR. Instead of refocusing the test so that it diagnosed weaknesses in a student’s preparation, the STAAR ratcheted stakes even higher.

The STAAR testing system now faces a formidable backlash, with parents, some business groups, teachers and high-level education experts calling for changes. Such dynamics present an opportunity if opponents and proponents seize the moment to strike a compromise.

As American-Statesman writer Kate Alexander reported recently, political winds regarding high-stakes testing have shifted. The law’s champion, state Sen. Florence Shapiro, who chaired the Senate Education Committee, is retiring. About half of the House members who will decide the issue when the Legislature convenes in January won their seats following the 2009 vote that created STAAR. Combine that with a growing chorus of voices from politically astute groups of parents, school administrators and businesses that want to see the law tweaked or fully overhauled and it is evident the political scales are tilting in a different direction.

The STAAR testing law requires that the scores on each end-of-course exam count toward 15 percent of a student’s final course grade. Those scores factor into grade point average, which is used to determine class rank. So a single exam might determine which students receive automatic admissions to select public universities in Texas or diminish his or her chances for out-of-state universities because other states don’t use standardized exams to compute grade point averages. That provision helped launch the parent group opposing STAAR, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment.

Some business trade groups rightly point out that the STAAR’s rigid requirements don’t address the needs of skilled labor jobs that could prepare students for well-paying jobs as welders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters or other professions. And many school officials complain that massive failure rates on the STAAR have thrown thousands of students off their graduation track. In the first year of testing that began with last year’s ninth-graders, 47 percent of the class of 2015 failed at least one of the required exams. That brings up another point: The state has no problem regulating tougher standards but is stingy when it comes to paying for those measures.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, and Sandy Kress, an architect of the federal No Child Left Behind law, are influential supporters of the STAAR who have so far rejected rolling back requirements. But as we said, the political winds have shifted, which could set the stage for crafting a better testing system — one that does not sacrifice rigor but focuses on diagnosing problems or identifying talents so that failing students get back on track and gifted students are steered to challenging coursework.

Such a system should continue looking at performance of individual student groups and making the information public. But it should eliminate the 15 percent provision that could put Texas students at a competitive disadvantage for admissions to select colleges. That is not a rigorous standard; it’s a ridiculous one.

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