STAAR stands for “State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness.” But it’s not bright like a shining star—it’s more like a dark storm cloud hanging over the heads of many students, families, and teachers.
Standardized testing is a complex and controversial topic. My goal here is to give you some basic information so you can be the best possible advocate for your children and your community.
The most important thing is to always lift up your children with love. Amy S., a teacher and contributor at Houston Moms Blog, writes:
[O]ur students are not just an ID number on a roll sheet, they are not the GPA on a report card, and they are not the score on the STAAR test. They are living, breathing, human being[s]—and they MATTER.
Nothing that happens on a standardized test should tarnish your confidence in your children. These tests have flaws, and some argue that the system is broken. You will find a way for your kids to get a good education and have a bright future, no matter what happens with standardized testing. (I barely passed the writing section of the TAAS test, and now I’m a blogger. So there.)
Why do kids have to take standardized tests? A federal law, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, requires each state to establish standards (in Texas, the TEKS) and a system of standardized testing (in Texas, the STAAR test). Here are some of the reasons given for having high-stakes standardized testing: Make the curriculum more rigorous. Get kids ready for college and careers. Figure out how much kids are learning, and look for progress year after year. End social promotion (e.g., if a student has not mastered the material, hold him/her back). Make comparisons among districts, schools, and teachers.
Those are the goals…but what is the reality? A friend and former teacher told me, “Testing has ruined schools. It’s taken away the joyful parts of learning and instruction.” Here are some specific criticisms that are leveled at the current standardized testing system:
- Concerns about the amount of time spent preparing for and taking standardized tests. (For details on test days, see the official testing calendars, and double-check with your child’s school’s calendar.)
- Curriculum that is built around the test, and “teaching to the test.” A local high-school teacher told me that standardized testing was the main topic during their summer in-service week, and that emphasis carries over into the school year. For example, Algebra I courses have been redesigned to focus on material that is testable on the multiple-choice end-of-course exam, leaving students without the problem-solving skills they need for more advanced math classes.
- Lack of transparency in the testing system—purchasing, design, grading, etc.—and the cost of contracting services to Pearson Education Inc.
- Cheating by school leaders, including administrators in El Paso who pushed out students—los desaparecidos, the disappeared— who were at risk of getting low test scores, and then collected bonuses. This earlier post describes a similar situation in Austin.
- Test anxiety and the impact on students. “If the system ratchets up the stress on schools and cranks up the pressure on teachers, of course the stress will get handed down to students,” says Matt Prewett, founder of Texas Parents Union. My teacher friend reported that, in her first year of administering the TAKS test, she had four students throw up on their tests. Schools’ efforts to manage expectations can backfire.
- The burden on teachers and how it affects their professional quality of life.
- Disproportionate effects on English-language learners and special education students, and uncertainty about this year’s tests.
- Doubts about what standardized tests are actually measuring.
Answer: False. All public-school students take the STAAR test. This includes schools at traditional school districts as well as public charter schools. Private-school students and homeschoolers do not take the STAAR test. Also, young children (e.g., those in Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade) do not take the STAAR test, as testing doesn’t begin until the third grade. Additionally, many high-school seniors have already completed their required end-of-course exams, so some may not take the STAAR test.True or false: Your child must pass the STAAR test to advance to the next grade or to graduate.
Answer: True, in some grades.
Here is the testing schedule for grades 3–8:
- Grade 3: Mathematics and Reading
- Grade 4: Mathematics, Reading, and Writing
- Grade 5: Mathematics, Reading, and Science
- Grade 6: Mathematics and Reading
- Grade 7: Mathematics, Reading, and Writing
- Grade 8: Mathematics, Reading, Science, and Social Studies
Students with low scores undergo a process of tutoring, remediation, and retesting. Students who are unable to pass the fifth- or eighth-grade tests have the opportunity to make their case before a review board, or else they will be retained. Earlier this year, when I visited a mentorship program, I met several charter school students who had been held back in fifth grade due to standardized testing. In high school, students take end-of-course exams: English I, English II, Algebra I, Biology, and U.S. History. These tests are part of the core graduation requirements, and there is no review board process. To read more details, see these parent resources from Austin’s Region 13 Education Service Center.
True or false: Every student takes the same STAAR test.
Some English-language learners will take the STAAR L or some other version. Some special education students will take the STAAR A; for others, the ARD committee [ARD = admission, review, dismissal] will determine what accommodations they get while taking the usual STAAR test.
True of false: You can opt out of STAAR testing.
But that doesn’t stop people from trying. There’s a Facebook page dedicated to the movement, and Waco parent Kyle Massey has a blog about his family’s efforts to opt out of standardized testing. Bottom line: the school districts and principals have to follow the law. Your child would have to miss school on the testing days and the make-up testing days and would run the risk of not advancing to the next grade. The opt-out movement is a form of civil disobedience. A more effective strategy would be to get involved with a group like Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), a grassroots organization that, in 2013, successfully promoted a bill (HB5) that dramatically reduced the number of end-of-course exams for high school students. TAMSA has a number of significant goals for the 2015 legislature, including reducing the testing burden on students in grades 3–8 and seeking tests for all grades that are diagnostic rather than high-stakes and punitive.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the claims of standardized test proponents, that STAAR testing data helps improve the quality of schools and helps parents choose the right school. Every year, the Texas Education Agency measures standardized testing data to assemble accountability ratings for school districts in cities all over Texas, including San Antonio. Districts with low test scores face consequences: charter school districts with three years of low ratings can be shut down by the state; at traditional ISDs, campuses who have repeatedly failed to make adequate yearly progress are also in danger of closure. The standards keep rising: in 2012, 13 of 16 school districts in Bexar County failed to meet federal standards. Locally, Somerset ISD has started using standardized testing data to determine teachers’ incentive pay. This past year, the accountability ratings followed a pass-fail system—”met standard” or “improvement required”—but by 2016–17, they may take the form of A–F letter grades.
“Only a small fraction of families choose their children’s schools based on standardized test scores. Most parents are looking at other factors to see if a school is a good fit,” says Prewett, of Texas Parents Union. That’s been my experience as well. I have a hobby of answering questions from San Antonio parents who are looking for the right schools for their kids. Most of their questions have to do with school culture: values, beliefs, and goals. They want to know what makes a school special. If you are looking for a school that will get your kids ready for college, then check SAT and ACT scores and ask how many of their graduates attend college and earn four-year degrees, and scan the curriculum for advanced classes, seminars, AP classes, etc.
What is the way forward? As parents, we can be our children’s best advocates. Enroll your children in a school that has a robust curriculum, does not “teach to the test,” and whose culture minimizes test anxiety. If your child needs testing accommodations, plan ahead and ask for those now. If standardized testing is an insurmountable obstacle for your child, look into private schools or homeschooling. Always treat your children’s teachers with kindness and sympathy; they are unwitting accomplices in the totalitarianism of testing days. Finally, think about the bigger picture, and get involved in the grassroots parents’ movement for a better testing system. “As parents, we want diagnostic tests that help us, our children, and their teachers,” says TAMSA’s Yeager. “We want our teachers to be able to teach and engage the students in creative learning, rather than focusing on test prep and rote memorization.”
I hope you now feel more informed about the STAAR test and the system of standardized testing in Texas and better equipped to speak up for your children and your community. Please share your experiences in the comments.