A bill introduced to the 86th Texas Legislature could change the use of standardized testing in the state’s public schools.
State Representative Brooks Landgraf (R), of Odessa, filed House Bill 736 in January, which would eliminate the use of standardized testing as a criterion to graduate high school — effectively ending testing systems, such as the STAAR test, from being used as the chief source of academic accountability.
“The state’s attempt to ensure academic readiness and hold school districts accountable for student achievement through standardized, state-wide testing has failed,” Landgraf said, in a news release last month. “A state-wide assessment instrument places too great of a burden on our students and teachers.
Landgraf introduced the bill in hopes that removing the STAAR test would allow teachers and school districts greater freedom with the curriculum, while also not holding exemplary students back. Landgraf also took issue with how the STAAR test does not properly assess the education of students with special needs.
“Teachers are forced to ‘teach to the test’ so that the largest number of students can achieve scores that meet the minimum level of satisfaction,” he said. “This destroys any opportunity for teachers to come up with creative ways for students to learn, and limits the amount of time and attention teachers can pay to specific students.”
The STAAR test, first adopted for the 2011-12 school year, is administered to students in grades third through 11th. The average student in Texas will take 22 STAAR tests during this time. The last five tests, taken in high school, require passing grades to graduate. They are English I, Biology and Algebra I — which are administered in ninth grade — English II in 10th grade and US History in 11th grade.
Several school districts across Texas have either publicly supported or opposed the proposal from HB 736. Seguin ISD Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez is one of the former.
“I do believe accountability is vital, but I feel there’s more to the picture than just one test on one day,” he said. “I’d like to see a more holistic approach that meets the needs of the diverse education system we have in Texas.”
The STAAR test has failed to accurately represent the academic progress of schools and school districts with student bodies who are majority non-white or on free and reduced lunch, Gutierrez said. About 70 percent of students in Seguin ISD are on free and reduced lunch and more than 75 percent of students identified as non-white, according to Texas Tribune.
Starting in the 2018-19 school year, school districts received letter grades based on student performance in the STAAR test. Districts with majority non-white and free and reduced lunch student populations have systematically received lower grades from this designation, when all other variables are controlled, Gutierrez said. The Texas Education Agency plans to expand the letter grade system to individual schools for the 2019-20 school year.
“I believe as the years have gone on, STAAR has become more of a burden on students and teachers than TAAS or TAKS ever were,” Gutierrez said. “The research shows these lower letter grades generally serve less fortunate students. It further interferes with young adults who may choose not to go into education as a career, because the pay isn’t attractive and the pressure of this test has high levels of scrutiny.”
Marion ISD superintedent Kelly Lindholm also supports removing the STAAR test from graduation criteria, citing much of the same reasons as Seguin. Marion ISD administration — which has fiercely defended its identity as a small, student-centric school district — believes the universal standards of the STAAR test to not be beneficial to quality education, Lindholm said.
“While we understand the need for accountability for our educational system, we have never believed that a high-stakes one-size-fits-all test is the answer,” she said. “The success of our students and schools cannot and should not be measured by the sum of test scores collected on a few particular days over the course of our students’ entire educational journey. We believe that our students would be better served if our teachers are able to focus on teaching rather than on testing.”
Reception for the STAAR test is not all negative and some districts are just as vocal about keeping it in place for future years in hopes the academic accountability tool keeps students from regressing year to year.
“Without the STAAR test, we wouldn’t have known we had a problem,” former Comal ISD school board president Stephen Smith said. “Our SAT and ACT scores were decent but the STAAR test showed us our incremental progress from year to year was not where it needed to be.”
Comal ISD administration found that while raw scores for standardized tests were mostly acceptable, the change in proficiency in individual students as the years went on was not improving to meet the district’s goals, Smith. This led the district to hire an academic-focused superintendent in Andrew Kim in 2012, Smith said.
Smith also felt the burden of the test was not negatively affecting student progress nor a sufficient reason to dismiss one of the only major accountability systems school districts were subjected to by the state. Smith also praised the STAAR test for engaging with more critical cognitive thinking than its predecessor, the TAKS test.
“Frustration with the test is focused on the raw score and not the progress score, which is why the test is important after all,” he said. “And third graders will take any test you put in front of them. It’s the teachers who feel the stress and that’s because of its role as a diagnostic tool. Without the test, there would be no accountability at all. We are charged with improving the academic progress of students. If we can’t do that, we’ve failed.”
Texas has used standardized tests as a requirement to graduate since 1980. The first standardized test, TABS, was only administered in third, fifth and ninth grades. Its successors, TEAMS and TAAS, expanded to all odd-numbered grades, with the exception of first grade under TAAS. The current third through 11th grade model was first adopted by STAAR’s predecessor, TAKS, in 2002. The STAAR test was introduced to shift focus to end of course assessments, compared to the focus on general core subjects in TAKS.