Texas schools prepare for STAAR

By Mary K. Schaffer March 20, 2012

The new public school end-of-year exam, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test, focuses on college readiness, according to a doctoral candidate in Education Policy at the University.

Patricia D. Lopez, who wrote a dissertation on Texas education as a research associate for the Texas Center for Education Policy, discussed STAAR’s college readiness standards in a March 8 presentation. She said that the test is designed to be more rigorous and challenging than the current Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

“We are going from wanting to measure knowledge and skills [by TAKS] to wanting to measure college readiness [by STAAR],” Lopez said.

In 2007, the Texas legislature enacted Senate Bill 1031, which replaces the current TAKS assessments in grades 9 through 12 with a series of end-of-course assessments, beginning with the entering grade 9 class of 2011–’12. STAAR will require 45 days of testing, versus TAKS’ 28 days. The test will also have more questions, many of which will be open-ended instead of multiple choice, and will also include two writing tasks instead of just one, as TAKS required. STAAR will test the same subjects as TAKS for 3rd through 8th graders, though 2009 House Bill 3 requires stricter standards for 3rd through 8th grade testing.

Lopez acknowledged problems with STAAR, specifically in defining what college readiness means for secondary school students.

“The kindergarten-12 definition of college readiness does not dictate higher education practices,” Lopez said. “We might have to start prescribing and aligning practices that encroach on higher education practices so that ‘college readiness’ in secondary school actually applies to higher education.”

Dr. Angela Valenzuela, director of the Texas Center for Education Policy and professor in Educational Administration and Curriculum and Instruction, said despite such difficulties in defining college readiness, there has to be a change in public school high-stakes testing.

“The previous high-stakes testing systems, such as TAKS, are invalid and unfair. They have caused harm for a long time,” she said. “Testing alone should never be used to make high-stakes decisions, such as whether a student will graduate.”

While current high-stakes testing consequences might demand a change, George Reyes, Austin Community College dean of Student Services, said STAAR actually limits teachers’ capabilities in the classroom, hindering students’ college readiness.

“Because 45 days are spent on taking STAAR, students lose that time to learn critical thinking skills,” he said. “When students get to college, they just want teachers to ask them questions they can answer without any real work. That is not the direction we should be going.”

Miguel Guajardo, assistant professor in Educational Administration at Texas State University and a parent of a Texas public school student, said that STAAR shifts the balance of power between administrators and teachers so that preparing students for college becomes nearly impossible. The legislature created a very simple solution to a complex problem in STAAR, he said, because it places certain restrictions on teachers that force them to teach to the test, forgoing critical thinking skills.

“Teachers have no political power to make real policy changes that will prepare kids for college,” Guajardo said. “I have found that it is actually more effective for me to be a parent who instills hope for possibility in his children than it is for me to be a teacher.”

The 15 percent rule, which mandates that STAAR will account for that much of a student’s final grade, is another way in which the test places limits on teachers because it means that they can only dictate 85 percent of a child’s grade. The rule circumvents local grading policies and forces teachers to adhere to state grading policies, which might not align with current local policies. In such cases, students’ progress in school could actually be hindered by STAAR, according to Lopez.

However, despite the flaws in the STAAR testing system acknowledged by both Lopez and Valenzuela, the test aims to achieve a higher standard of college readiness than TAKS.

“We are aiming to create a system in which failure is mythic,” Valenzuela said. “The question becomes not if a student will graduate, but when he or she will graduate.”

The first STAAR test date is March 26, 2012.


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