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Educators disagree on what we're really learning from statewide STAAR tests? Here are two views

Texas school districts are expected to get these letter grades for the first time on Wednesday (Aug. 15). The grades are part of the new A-F Public School Accountability System and are based largely on the results of the 2018 STAAR tests, or State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.
Texas school districts are expected to get these letter grades for the first time on Wednesday (Aug. 15). The grades are part of the new A-F Public School Accountability System and are based largely on the results of the 2018 STAAR tests, or State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

Yes, STAAR tests effectively measure student performance

This spring, children, teens, teachers, schools and parents are receiving results from the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which attempts to measure the knowledge and skills acquired by students across the state.

The statewide assessment is an important part of how we measure student success, along with evaluating the success or failure at the classroom, school and district levels.

These tests are identified through the well-earned title of "high-stakes testing" because of implications for school funding and accountability — and students. Because of these critical issues, statewide standardized testing has drawn criticism. In fact, the grassroots Committee to Stop STAAR filed an ongoing lawsuit in 2016 that in part seeks to bring greater public awareness to the “negative impacts of STAAR” on public schools.

Despite it being a lightning rod for controversy in the state, the STAAR is here for the foreseeable future — and it's an effective tool in assessing student performance. The test results provide valuable insights that shouldn’t be disregarded.

As both a parent and an associate professor of counseling who focuses on tests and assessments, I believe the results of our students’ statewide tests should not be viewed as “successes” or “failures.” Instead, the data should be viewed as a tool to understand our students better. What follows are some tips to help parents more effectively understand the results of their child’s state test so that they can support their child’s learning outcomes.

The test only measures knowledge at one moment in time.

As parents, we must understand that tests are only one measure and that our children may or may not have actually performed to their best on the test. Many variables can influence poor performance—being sick, a recent trauma, a loss, or other significant life event. These variables cannot be factored into the results, but must be understood by parents, as they can have a huge impact on testing performance.

The STAAR does not measure the child’s willingness to perform; therefore, if a child is feeling oppositional or is quite indifferent to the test, results will be skewed significantly as well. One framework for understanding STAAR results is to view them in combination with other data, such as classroom grades and previous test results.

Understanding the scores in context

The “Student Report” provides an individual snapshot of several statistically defined results. The STAAR provides results in the category (math, reading, social studies, science, etc.), but those raw scores do not provide us with much information.

However, these overall scores in each category are converted into a standardized, weighted ranking. Scores below the 16th percentile — that is, scores no better than 16 percent of all test takers — are categorized as low; those between the 16th and 84th percentiles are average; and scores that rank above the 84th percentile are high.

The score report also provides the student results in one of four descriptors: did not meet, approaches, meets, and masters. These descriptors further suggest the comparison between the results of individual students and Texas Education Agency expectations.

Making meaning and making plans

If your student is identified through the statewide test as having weaknesses in one or more areas, keep in mind that is not an attack on your student, nor is it an attack on you as a parent. Rather, it is a challenge to you, your student, the teachers and school to find additional ways to grasp the concepts the child does not understand.

Helping your child reach more fully toward their potential includes an honest reflection on the test results, perhaps consultation with the school on their observations, and securing additional outside resources in areas of concern.

Finally, results that identify your student as behind in some academic areas are not definitive or predictive of your child’s capacity to learn. Through tutoring, support, and cognitive growth, a student can reverse a poor test score into a positive one.

Bill McHenry is an associate professor of counseling education at St. Edwards University in Austin.

No, STAAR tests don't measure individual student learning

Parents need to understand the STAAR tests that define the lion’s share of public education approaches in Texas

ETS, the company that conducts the test for the state, and Pearson before it, did not design STAAR to measure student learning or the level of a student’s mastery of a specific subject area. It is designed to compare student groups from across the state.

The erroneous assertion that a parent, or a teacher for that matter, can use the data from state testing to make diagnostic claims about a student’s individual educational needs is harmful to students and leads to misinformed instructional decisions.

What STAAR actually measures

The questions on STAAR or End-of-Course (EOC) tests are meant to discriminate between below-average, average and above-average students in a specific grade level, which is a useful function of a test if you're trying to compare large groups to one another and identify patterns of achievement.

However, it is worse than useless for looking at individual students. If you use the data to draw conclusions about individual student learning, you’ll draw false conclusions about what that student has learned. STAAR does not measure student knowledge, not even “at one moment in time.” What’s more, it doesn’t attempt to do so.

There are two reasons for this.

First, as both the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and ETS have repeatedly stated, the test questions are not designed to measure mastery of academic concepts. While each question is aligned with a specific Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) student expectation, it is not designed to judge the extent of a particular student’s learning.

Second, even if the questions were designed to measure mastery, there aren’t enough test questions in each area to determine whether or not a student has learned a skill. The majority of TEKS in any subject are tested using only one or two questions — not to mention the dozens of TEKS that are never tested on STAAR. Are one or two multiple-choice questions enough to give you confidence that your student has definitely learned a mathematical concept or reading skill?

As W. James Popham, an international expert on assessment and accountability and former president of the American Educational Research Association, points out in his book “Transformative Assessment,” these tests are comparative, and not intended to determine student success or quality of teaching.

To make instructional valid inferences, the test would need to include questions that measure a student's ability to use a specific skill, and ask enough questions to provide proof of that ability to the teachers, students and parents. For the test to be used to inform instructional quality or student intervention, the STAAR/EOC test would need to be four or five times longer than it is.

STAAR/EOC cannot tell you what a student has learned.

The importance of well-informed parents

Unfortunately, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. When the state over-emphasizes the importance of a test by attaching high stakes to its results, then schools and the general public are encouraged to attach significance to the data that is not appropriate.

Parental involvement in a student’s academic career is imperative to student success. I applaud McHenry’s attempt in this to involve parents in the conversation around their students’ academic achievements, but he’s unintentionally leading parents to consider the same falsehood that has been passed on to justify spending nearly $100 million per year on the development of these tests instead of appropriating additional funds to public school districts.

Parents must be involved in their children’s education, but that should be through partnerships with the teachers and schools that interact with those children on a daily basis. In fact, if parents pay the majority of their attention to a STAAR score or the upcoming A-F grade the state will assign their child’s school in the coming years, those parents will be less informed about the quality of instruction their child is actually receiving.

Eric Simpson is director of Learning and Leadership Services for the Texas Association of School Administrators