Texas’ latest standardized testing acronym lived up to its billing and proved tougher than its predecessors, but local districts still managed to outperform students statewide in most subjects.
In the spring, high school freshmen took the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) end-of-course exams. These replaced Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).
The writing portion proved the most difficult for freshmen.
Only two of six local districts surveyed for this story had 70 or more percent of its students pass the writing portion. Even with these results, every district but one performed better than the statewide passing percentage of 55.
“This test is more difficult – it’s more rigorous,” said Slidell Superintendent Greg Enis. “But at the same time it’s the system we have, and we have to work with it.”
Districts had little to go on before taking these new exams. Texas Education Agency (TEA) released several sample questions, but schools had nothing else to help prepare students the first time around.
“It’s like we started a journey, but we didn’t know where the destination was,” Enis said. “But it does give us a chance to see where some of our weaknesses are.”
Alvord High School freshmen boasted the highest passing percentages in the county in almost every subject.
“I think we were in the same position as a lot of districts,” said Alvord Superintendent Bill Branum. “We didn’t know what to expect. We only had a few sample questions provided by (TEA).
“I was extremely pleased with the outcome … These tests were much more difficult in a variety of ways. In the old testing system, there was no time limit. Students could take all day. These were timed, and the questions were much more difficult. These are centered around higher level thinking and problem solving. You have to apply learned information. In the old test, you could get the answer right if you just knew the information. This is a whole new game.”
STAKES ARE HIGHER
These tests take on new importance because students have to pass to graduate.
Last year’s freshmen will have to pass a total of 15 STAAR end-of-course exams before they can don a cap and gown and receive a diploma. With TAKS, students only had to pass their 11th-grade exit-level exams to graduate.
After year one, a high percentage of students across the county already need to retake at least one portion of the exam. Students who fail an exam don’t have to retake the course, though, if they have a passing grade in it.
Ted West, Boyd’s interim co-superintendent and high school principal, said they are already trying to help students who failed one or more sections get the jump on getting a passing score. Only 48 percent of Boyd freshmen passed the English writing exam.
“We knew it was coming. We knew it would be more difficult,” West said. “It was everything they said it would be.
“That being said, it was still an eye-opening experience for us. We know that we are not at the level we should be. But as our kids start to see what these tests are like, they will be better prepared to battle it next time, and our teachers will also know how to better prepare our kids. It is extremely important that everybody pass.”
“We started offering remediation classes the week after graduation,” West added.
Next week Boyd will start offering its first retakes. West said the high school will start offering remediation courses for students throughout the school year as well.
Each district handles it differently. Slidell, for instance, is not offering the tests again until fall.
STEEPER ROAD AHEAD
It’s only going to get tougher.
Starting in 2016, the number of correct answers required to pass each section will increase considerably. According to the TEA, only 34 percent of students across the state would pass the English 1 writing test. Only 39 percent would pass the Algebra. In fact, there would have been a less than 50 percent passing rate across the state for all five basic portions of the freshman end-of-course exam.
The end-of-course exams will also eventually count as a percentage (most districts will use 15 percent) of a student’s final grade in each course.
“I’m not opposed to testing, but I feel like we’re going in a direction that puts too much emphasis on testing,” Enis said. “It shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all of a school. These tests are only a snapshot. It’s such a small part of what our school and our kids are doing.”