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Unreachable STAARs; High-stakes testing could thwart graduation, college plans

By Erika Pedroza | Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Projection slides on a large white screen outlined how state-mandated accountability tests have evolved through the years – beginning with the Texas Assessments of Basic Skills (TABS) in 1980, whose sample exit-level math question required one step – looking at a graph – to get an answer.

STAARgraphic

Host superintendent, Dr. Karen Rue of Northwest ISD, clicked through the presentation during a Feb. 13 roundtable discussion with media representatives and superintendents of four of the state’s top school districts. With each flicker came a new, tougher test.

A question from the same level in the newest standardized test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) implemented last year, asked which of the answer choices correctly described “a graph of a quadratic function given [a specificied algebraic expression].”

It took at least five steps to reach that answer, Rue pointed out.

“The questions have been made more complex and require a lot more thinking,” she said. “So it’s not just about facts, not just about basic skills, not just simply looking at a graph … There are probably very few of us who would want to sit down and do that one without a little brushing up on Algebra II.”

“A little?” asked an incredulous Grapevine-Colleyville ISD Superintendent Robin Ryan.

But it’s not just the subject content of the test that has teachers, testing coordinators, counselors and administrators perplexed. Interpreting the results is equally challenging.

On the current test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), students test in writing, math, reading, science and social studies. Each TAKS test is accounted for individually, and whether or not a student graduates is based simply upon whether they passed each of those five tests.

That simplicity is lost in the STAAR.

Along with the new test comes new terminology (such as cumulative score), higher expectations and harsher ramifications.

It’s the latter, and its potentially detrimental effects on secondary-level students, that has Rue and Ryan, along with Birdville superintendent Darrell Brown and Keller supe Randy Reid – as well as school officials and high school students across the state concerned.

Based on the new assessment, a student’s year-long success in a course can be impacted by their score on the STAAR/End-of-Course (EOC) exam.

“Poor performance on one test could result in an A student not qualifying for a four-year Texas university or a student-athlete losing an athletic scholarship,” Rue said. “STAAR and EOC exams could affect students’ course grades, grade-point average and class rank. This high-stakes testing could crush post-secondary plans for Texas high school graduates.”

Reid added: “Testing shouldn’t carry the weight that it carries.”

Through the course of high school, students (beginning with last year’s freshmen – and eighth graders who took Algebra I in middle school) will take 15 EOC exams – the equivalent of exit-level TAKS tests.

Corresponding exams per subject include:

  • math – Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II
  • language arts – English I, II, III (each a writing and reading test)
  • science – Biology, Chemistry, Physics
  • social studies – World Geography, World History, U.S. History.

A student must accumulate a minimum cumulative score per subject. That “minimum” is determined by their graduation plan.

Students on the recommended plan must earn higher scores than those on the minimum plan; and students must score even higher than recommended requirements to earn the distinguished seal on their diploma.

Those required scores are a moving target as higher standards are phased in in two-year increments. For example, a student on the minimum plan must score a 3,367 on the Biology EOC in this phase-in. However, that will increase to 3,621 for phase-in two, which will be implemented the 2013-2014 school year.

And scores on the Algebra II and English III exams – dubbed the “gatekeeper” tests – determine a student’s graduation plan, whether it’s minimum, recommended or distinguished.

If students don’t perform at the satisfactory (corresponds with the scores required in the recommended graduation plan) or advanced (distinguished graduation plan) level on those two exams, they will graduate with a minimum plan.

“The caveat there is in the state of Texas, one may not attend a four-year university with a minimum high school plan,” Rue said. “So John is on the tennis team – been really great with that and … has managed to get a small scholarship for that small university saying, ‘We’re going to get your books and get you on our tennis team.’ He’s been working toward that recommended plan, but he doesn’t score well enough on the STAAR so he moves down to the minimum plan.”

Suddenly, John doesn’t qualify for a four-year university, thus relinquishing his earned scholarship.

“And this is just the tip of the iceburg of the complexity,” Brown said.

And the clock is ticking. This year’s juniors will be the last to take the TAKS.

DECEPTIVE DESIGNATIONS

To further complicate the confusion, test scores are cryptic to the average person.

“These are scaled scores,” Reid said. “But they mean absolutely nothing to a parent or teacher as they look at these numbers because they don’t know whether an 1,875 is a 70 or a 40 or a 68. There’s no measure of how to track that across in our general terms with how we identify scores.”

So the average person will depend on the performance labels imposed with the STAAR – minimum, satisfactory and advanced.

However, the “minimum” category is misleading. In the scope of cumulative scoring, meeting minimum does not mean a student passed.

“In essence, a student who got the minimum score but didn’t reach the satisfactory score just ‘failed better’,” Rue said.

If a student met the minimum score, they aren’t required to retake the EOC, even though school officials strongly believe they should. Instead, students can use the minimum score and attempt to recapture the missing points on other tests to reach the required cumulative score.

But that’s a risk. If a student achieves only a minimum score, they will not reach the cumulative score necessary for graduation.

“So you’re starting from behind, and you’d have to score that much better on future tests to get over the hump,” Reid said. “The tests increase in rigor as you go through. If I score at the minimum level but not at the satisfactory level in Algebra I, what is the likelihood that I’m going to score way above the satisfactory level by the time I get to Algebra II? Kids who score the minimum level need to be retaking the test.”

Reid said that his district attempted to impose that requirement on the 600 students at their four high schools who met only the minimum or below last year. But their efforts were hindered by the misleading “minimum” tag.

“They didn’t understand why, because they had received a report that said they scored the minimum,” he said.

Time and funding constraints worsened the situation.

“We found out their scores the week that school let out,” he continued. “We were required to provide them with remediation in the summer with our own money, because that was some of money that was removed from us in the cuts last year. So we had to create a pot of money to create a plan to remediate 600 kids in four different subject areas – and, oh by the way, we had 13 days of summer school to do that in.

“Becasue you can fix a kid in 13 days that hasn’t been able to get the subject matter in 175 or 180?”

The response was not great, and now districts are scrambling to compensate.

“We had a lot of kids that didn’t attend – either they had the minimum score and didn’t feel like they wanted to; they already had summer plans and they didn’t find out until the week before they left that they needed to take the test,” Reid said. “So the ones that didn’t, now we’re trying to remediate them while they’re taking the next level courses because if they passed the course but failed the test, they’re on into the next level course, and you’re trying to remediate at the same time.

“It’s a challenge … They have extra chances to retake the tests, but one of the problems with that is the further they get past, even though they’re in more advanced coursework, for them to go back and try to take an Algebra I test two years later, there’s a significant amount of remediation that would have to occur to make them prepared for that.”

Brown said the system lends to a snowball effect that will overwhelm otherwise competent students.

“They go, ‘What’s the point?,’ and it makes them, what? Drop out – the most costly thing that can happen.”

SPEAKING OUT

While school officials criticized several aspects of the STAAR, ultimately it’s the emphasis on one test they most want addressed.

“We’re more looking for multiple measures of accountability,” Brown said. “If (the state) wants tests to be a part of that, have at it. In school, we don’t just say, ‘You’re going to spend a semester in here. You get one test. Hope you do well.’ We look at projects; we look at homework; we look at class work – a variety of ways to demonstrate what a student can do. And we want an accountability system with multiple measures to give us a rating that more accurately reflects student performance.”

Rue, too, called for a system that focuses on student performance, demonstration of learning and an ability to create and be innovative with information.

“We’re not saying not to be held accountable,” she said. “But accountability testing has extended and become intrusive on the learning process … This system turns the purpose of schooling into testing, and that’s not an education. That’s just passing a test.

“It needs to be about meaningful work rather than ‘I’m going to pass a test’,” she continued. “Because the reality is we have students who don’t pass a test, and we could sit them in a room and just tutor the heck out of them … and eventually we’re going to get that kid to pass the test. But we sure didn’t educate them.

“We didn’t give them anything meaningful, anything that prepared them for the future.”

Reid agreed, contending that opportunities for the future are based on the classes students take, their extra-curricular involvements and leadership roles – not state-mandated test scores.

“We’re marking a target that’s not the target we should be intending to hit,” Reid said. “We’re producing really good one-day test-takers. But I don’t know one college that looks at a STAAR score or a TAKS score to determine whether they let kids in … It’s time for us to see a change and it’s time for us to focus on what skills kids need.”

School officials call on parents to seek out those changes by contacting elected officials and encouraging them to endorse such legislation as Senate Bill 225 and House Bill 5, which are specifically about public education, graduation plans and the accountability system.

“One of our real desires in all of this is for us to be able to have our parents engaged in a big way,” Reid said. “With the parents comes power. We can make a difference.”

For more information on the impact of STAAR on Northwest ISD, visit www.nisdtx.org/STAAR. It features a district assessment calendar, answers to frequently asked questions and resources from the Texas Education Agency.

STAAR-CROSSED

  • The test is longer and timed.
  • High school students will take 15 End-of-Course (EOC) exams before graduation.
  • Out of 180 days of school, tests are administered on 40.
  • Test scores are pooled by subject, and students must accumulate a “minimum” score to graduate.
  • If a student passes a course but not the EOC, he/she will go to the next-course level and take the EOC for the new course plus the failed EOC.
  • Required exam scores will increase in two-year phase-in increments.

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