DFW schools preparing for State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness
Transition to STAAR frustrating and uncertain
Southwest High School freshman Lashun Washington admits that algebra isn't her best subject, and as new state tests roll out this month, she knows the stakes are high.
So she has attended after-school tutoring and gone through several reviews with teachers to help her prepare for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.
"Yeah, there's pressure," Washington said. "But all these tests are not really different. I don't like testing, but we have no choice, so I just do my best and take them."
This year's STAAR results won't determine whether students in grades three through eight will be promoted, but high school students -- beginning with this year's freshmen -- must pass tests given in the final weeks of each math, science, English and social studies class to eventually graduate.
Sophomores, juniors and seniors continue to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which will be phased out at the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Educators and administrators say the transition has been fraught with frustration and uncertainty, with limited information on what is on the tests and how they will be scored.
Last month, parents and educators statewide were so concerned that they successfully lobbied Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott to back off a requirement for this year that the end-of-course exams count as 15 percent of course grades. As plans stand now, that will go into effect next year.
Because the test is new, the state has already suspended district and campus accountability ratings for 2011-12. Passing standards have yet to be set.
Arlington school district Deputy Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos said bumps are to be expected for any new state tests.
For example, the state's passing rate for all students under the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills was about 85 percent in 2002.
The following year, when TAKS was implemented, it dropped to 48 percent.
"The first year is always a transition," Cavazos said. "Until you have the results, you don't know where your exact needs are going to be. So we have to work to align our instruction and prepare students for the state standards and rigor."
Districts have been tweaking lesson plans for months in hopes of reflecting STAAR, which is designed to be more rigorous, with more open-ended questions that require critical analysis.
Cathleen Richardson, who oversees math and science instruction for the Fort Worth school district, said teachers have had additional training for STAAR, reviewed areas where students struggled in practice tests and offered more targeted tutoring.
But Richardson and others said STAAR will likely show better results over time because students will be tested on material when they have it.
With TAKS, students often had to spend weeks reviewing lessons learned years ago.
"I think the students are going to perform better" on the end-of-course exams, Richardson said. "Do I think there's going to be a struggle initially? Yes. But to have students assessed at the time they have the material does make a lot of sense."
For now, some administrators are bracing for high failure rates. Practice tests administered in 2011 yielded dismal results statewide, officials said. Forty to 50 percent of students taking the tests statewide mastered many of the subject areas.
To offset the expected failures, school officials are working to beef up summer remediation programs that had been scaled back because of budget cuts.
The state mandated that districts provide more help to students who fail end-of-course tests, although no additional funding was provided to pay for the programs.
'The first time'
Fort Worth had one central summer school location last year, and now officials are considering offering testing remediation programs at each of the district's 13 high schools. Arlington officials are also considering plans for summer programs at each high school but said they will adjust after seeing test results.
Birdville school officials have said as many as 25 percent of ninth-graders will fail at least one end-of-course exam. But officials really "don't have any idea" what to expect, said Donna Solley, director of curriculum and instruction department.
Plans are for a three-week summer session at each of the district's three high schools, Solley said.
Students who fail an end-of-course test are not required to participate in summer school and can retake it as many times as they need to before graduation. But Birdville officials plan to encourage students to do so and take the test again at their earliest chance, in July, while the course material is still fresh in their minds.
Birdville estimates the cost of the extra remediation at $70,000. Additional remediation could be needed in coming years as more tests are administered and more grades added, Solley said.
"What we expect to happen is the more we learn about the test and how our kids are performing on it, the better we can prepare for it," Solley said. "We expect the number of failures to go down. It's just the first time."