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Texas Legislators Vent Over STAAR Testing Fallout

There's been a lot of attention paid over the last month to school financing in Texas and how its fate now rests in the hands of state Supreme Court justices—but the state's relatively new testing regimen, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, is also causing a lot of stress among state lawmakers, the Associated Press reported Feb. 20. Even the subject of a test question involving ice on the sidewalk has cause irritation in Austin.

Approved by lawmakers in 2009, the new STAAR regimen of tests requires high school students (starting with students who began 9th grade in the 2011-12 academic year) to pass 15 end-of-course exams in order to graduate, and also instituted new tests for students in grades 3-8. On Jan. 29, the state released the latest round of scores for both the end-of-course tests and the tests for students in elementary and middle schools.

This "latest round" includes retakes of any end-of-course tests by students who failed them in the spring of last year, when the tests were initially given (students could retake an exam in the summer and fall).

Lawmakers are ready to break out the wrecking ball on STAAR, based on what they feel are disturbingly poor results. Noting that the passing rates for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds were even worse than results from other students, even after the retake results were included, Sen. Dan Patrick, the chairman of the state Senate education committee, wondered aloud during testimony with state education officials, "Either teachers are doing a poor job teaching or the tests aren't reflective of what needs to be learned. It's either or. Which is it?"

One part of STAAR that appears to be in particularly deep trouble is the requirement that the end-of-course tests count for 15 percent of students' final grades—remember, more broadly, students have to pass these tests in order to graduate under the current system. The AP reported that several bills in the Texas Legislature intend to end this particular impact of the test. Even though the passing rates may appear to be relatively high in the abstract, the scores would appear to have a significant impact on graduation rates, a fact which no doubt is causing lawmakers to gnaw their knuckles. Lawmakers could also decrease the number of tests students take.

"We've got a colossal failure on our hands in terms of how this was rolled out and in terms of accomplishing what we wanted to achieve," state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, declared.

In the other chamber, a bill was introduced earlier this month in Texas House of Representatives aiming to cut back on the number of end-of-course tests as well, and a previous bill passed the Senate that would allow districts to decide how much those tests should count for students' final grades. That bill awaits action in the House.

The passing standards on these end-of-course tests won't remain static. As I wrote about last year, the state education department revealed what the passing rates would have been in 2012, if the passing standards in 2016, and results plunged significantly. So lawmakers may be looking down the road at even more depressing results, and trying to head them off at the pass.

Roughly nine months ago, I wrote about 425 school districts that had adopted a resolution that called on the state to reconsider its accountability and assessment system under STAAR based on concern about the number of tests and their impact. It seems as though several lawmakers, at least, are coming around to those districts' point of view.

What about the slippery issue of ice I mentioned in the beginning? One lawmaker was irked by the fact that students in Brownsville, a town at the southern tip of the state on the border with Mexico, had to deal with a question about ice on the sidewalk, a situation they were unlikely to encounter unless they traveled significantly north of (or higher than) their hometown. Given the climate of the Senate hearing, so to speak, it's perhaps not surprising that one test question got singled out for scorn.


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