As parents, we have a responsibility to protect our children from harm. We should take this responsibility seriously and defend them when we see threats to their future.
I believe harm is being done with the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) high-stakes testing. I have asked Texas Education Agency (TEA) commissioner Mike Morath to provide me with feedback on concerns that have been raised by researchers regarding whether the tests are grade-level appropriate. I have also filed Senate Bill 2400, which has been referred to the Senate Education Committee along with a request for a public hearing. This bill requests a moratorium on the use of the STAAR test to assess students, teachers, and school performance, until the STAAR test can be evaluated by an independent group of qualified educators.
In 2012, Texas A&M University-Commerce conducted a STAAR readability study. This study applied five different readability formulas and found that all of the reading passages were written at least two grade levels above the enrolled grade level reading standard. In 2016, a readability study by the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor applied six different readability formulas to the STAAR reading passages and found that on average, the passages were one to three grade levels above the enrolled grade level. According to the TEA, “The STAAR test is designed to tell us how well our students know grade level knowledge and how well they can demonstrate grade level skills.” However, according to the research, the test is not testing grade level reading skills. Most recently, a 2019 study applied eight readability formulas to the STAAR reading passages and found that on average, the results were the same as the previous study. When looking at the average of the individual reading passages and the total average of the passages, it was concluded that the readability level is still too high in most cases.
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The STAAR test does not align with the state-mandated guidelines in Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that teachers use for instruction. Because the STAAR is written two to three grade levels beyond the grade levels of the students being tested, the STAAR is assessing student knowledge inconsistent with TEKS guidelines that tell teachers how to educate their students to read.
How can we expect students and teachers to prepare for a test that challenges them with material written beyond the enrolled grade level, and without providing an appropriate educational experience focusing on those very standards? Eight- and nine-year-old children should not be burdened with high-stakes testing that is not reflective of their actual performance in class.
Parents, grandparents, teachers, and principals report stress and sickness among our young students due to the anxiety that the STAAR is causing them. As if the stress of taking the assessment were not difficult enough, placing the weight of accountability on the shoulders of eight- and nine-year-old children, coupled with the stress of being concerned about whether they are promoted to the next grade level, is unfathomable. The impact of each student’s performance on the future of their neighborhood schools, and the merit pay of their teachers, is the very definition of unnecessary harm. This system is setting our students, teachers, and neighborhood schools up for failure.
To be clear: I am not averse to testing when tests are used to gauge a student’s progress and to adjust classroom teaching accordingly. It makes a lot of sense to determine the kind of help students will need at the start of the school year. Grade-level appropriate tests or assessments are useful tools for teachers, students, and parents. They give us information on what we need to do to ensure the teacher is reaching the student and the student is understanding and mastering the material. The test only makes sense if it measures the skills and knowledge students are expected to learn, as determined by the state of Texas.
I know that STAAR was inherited by Commissioner Morath, and the history of high-stakes testing precedes his tenure as commissioner. But he is in the unique position to take a proactive stance and correct the misalignment between the standards on the assessment and the actual grade level expectations set for students in class. My colleagues in the House and Senate are all committed public servants. I do not believe there is a coordinated agenda to privatize our public schools and set them up for failure. However, at the same time, I do not know why the state has known about this problem for seven years and done nothing effective to address it.
What I have seen during my eighteen-year tenure in the legislature is that key members on the education committees call for more testing and increase of penalties to school districts, to provide accountability for the public tax dollars we invest. Yet in different conversations, they talk about the need for incubators of innovation that are free of the onerous rules and regulations of traditional public schools, and the need for alternatives to those strict accountability standards.
Beyond ensuring appropriate tests, we have to address funding of our schools as well, which still have not recovered from the legislature’s $5.4 billion budget cut in 2011. We have seen school districts scrambling to figure out what to do to maintain an adequate level of instruction while trying to meet state standards and pass the STAAR test.
What is abundantly clear is that we have studies that show that our current path is not working for our children or for the future of Texas. This has got to stop. If we are to prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow, Texas must better align what is tested on the STAAR with the TEKS standards that teachers are required to teach and students are expected to learn.
We must also be more transparent. The state government needs to be held accountable for how it manages taxpayer funds and public services. With evidence revealing study after study that our current course is not the best for our students, we need to act now and press the pause button on the STAAR test.
If you agree that we can find a better way to assess academic achievement in our public schools, then please call, email, or write your state elected officials urging them to support the STAAR testing moratorium by voting in favor of Senate Bills SB2400 (Sen. Menéndez), SB2401 (Sen. Menéndez), SB96 (Sen. Menéndez), SB2297 (Sen. Powell); and House Bills HB525 (Rep. Holt), HB1687 (Rep. White), and HB3237 (Rep. M. Gonzalez).
You can find your elected state representatives here.