Amid STAAR debate, one critic says: ‘The test is corrupt’

Fort Worth STAAR academy

(Star-Telegram/Yamil Berard) Three dozen students at Meadowcreek Middle School are getting help with the STAAR exam.
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(Star-Telegram/Yamil Berard) Three dozen students at Meadowcreek Middle School are getting help with the STAAR exam.

Texas students are taking STAAR tests this week even as the assessments draw critics and lawmakers weigh in on potential changes to the system.

The first round of preliminary results were posted last week by the Texas Education Agency. Early 2019 data shows that Texas fifth- and eighth-grade students performed slightly higher in math over reading — results that mirrored last year’s performance.

The state’s passing rate for fifth-grade in math was 83%, while the reading rate was 77%. Among eighth-graders, the passing rate was 81% for math and 77% for reading.

Thousands of Texas students took the tests earlier this school year. Those who didn’t pass are re-testing this week.

Education advocates and parent groups are keeping a close eye to see if lawmakers tinker with STAAR, which stands for State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. The end of the Legislative session comes as critics of the assessments continue to push for less high-stakes testing.

The Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of the Fort Worth-based Pastors for Texas Children, said he represents a network of Texas faith leaders who have mobilized to support public schools. His group is critical of the STAAR tests, explaining that a recent report raised the question of whether the tests are too hard.

Additionally, the tests received national attention after an expletive was discovered in an image of a graffiti park in one of the tests.

“The test is corrupt,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t measure grade-level learning. ...“Now, we have profanity in the questions of elementary students. The test is corrupted.”

The TEA apologized that profanity slipped through the testing materials.

“After the test was administered, TEA discovered that two of the included images contained vulgar words in very small lettering,” the TEA said in a statement. “This is in no way acceptable or appropriate, and we deeply regret that these images appeared on the test. We apologize to all our parents and students, and in the spirit of continuous improvement, we pledge to ensure this issue never occurs again.”

In the Legislature

State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, recently proposed eliminating school bonuses based on third-grade test scores.

Parents, teachers and others supported Powell’s amendment and showed that through their use of the #NoSTARRonHB3 hash tag.

After the vote, where House Bill 3 passed without her amendment, Powell noted that the measure does many good things, including investing millions of new dollars into public schools, funding full-day pre-kindergarten and requiring that the TEA contract with a third party to review the STAAR.

HB 3 now heads to a conference committee where a few members from each chamber will work on a compromise before the legislative session ends May 27.

After the vote Powell said she hopes “the numerous concerns voiced on the floor … regarding funding tied to standardized test scores will be seriously considered in conference as both chambers come together to produce the final product.”

The Texas House recently approved a bill to prevent a student from being held back or a school from being closed for poor performance on the 2018-19 STAAR test. It also calls on the TEA to review whether the reading level on that year’s test is grade appropriate.

State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, filed a bill earlier this session that would have essentially done away with the STAAR test.

“A statewide assessment instrument places too great of a burden on our students and teachers,” he said at the time. “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.

“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.”

His House Bill 736 was assigned to a House Committee but never received a hearing.

Any talk of retooling high-stakes testing mobilizes STAAR critics. They have been calling lawmakers and urging others to do the same after reports that lawmakers might increase the number of assessments and add a kindergarten one.

“Any hint of expanding STAAR testing gets people riled up,” said Julie Welty Nguyen, a former president for the Birdville Council of PTAs. “It gets us talking.”

High-stakes tests

Under Texas law, fifth- and eighth-graders must pass in order to be promoted to the next grade. Students who don’t pass the first time can retake the tests. Students are scheduled to retake the tests Monday and Tuesday.

Parents can appeal if their students don’t pass. Students can still move on if campus-based grade placement committee unanimously agrees to promote them.

One continuing worry is that the STAAR tests above grade level, but the TEA defended the assessments.

“TEA is confident our assessments are on grade level,” the agency said in a statement. “The STAAR is hard — because as Texans, and as educators, we know that our students’ success after high school hinges upon a rigorous learning experience in their grade school classrooms.”

The agency also stated that the grade-level appropriateness is tied to another education trend — Texas’ reading performance has remained flat or declined during the last decade.

“We remain committed to working with all Texas educators to strengthen our reading supports so that every child in every school learns to read at grade level,” the TEA stated, adding that it is working on several fronts to improve the tests.

Every spring, students, parents and educators gear up for new rounds of testing. Some families said it can be highly stressful for students who can struggle with test-taking or require a more individualized approach to learning.

In recent years, parents have joined grassroots movements to push for an end to high-stakes testing. Some Texas parents have opted out of the tests by not sending their children to school the day of the tests. On social media, Texas parents have reached out for help opting out of tests.

“This time of year we are flooded with cries for help,” said Sherry Neeley, a mother and a moderator for the Facebook group Texans Take Action Against STAAR.

Parents said they are not against tests, but they are worried about how much money is spent on STAAR, about whether authentic learning is taking place and if it is the best assessment tool for students with special needs.

“Standardized testing does not give a clear picture of an entire child,” said Kim Markle, a parent in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district. “Everybody has their own unique way of learning.”

Preliminary 2019 results

This year’s statewide results were largely in line with last year’s preliminary results.

In the Fort Worth area, students in Aledo and Southlake Carroll schools performed among the highest.

Aledo’s fifth-grade and eighth-grade students had 93% passing rates in math. In reading, fifth-graders had a 91% passing rate while eighth-graders were at a 92% passing rate.

In Carroll schools, fifth- and eighth-grade students had 98% passing rates in math and 97% passing rates in reading.

Students in Fort Worth schools, the largest district in Tarrant County, had a higher passing rate in math than reading. In grade five, 73% of students passed math while 69 passed reading. In grade eight, 70% passed math while 60% passed reading.

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.
Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.