STAAR TEST Important Improvement or Dangerous FLOP?

In 2009, the 81st Legislature passed HB3 which created the transition plan from the TAKS test to the ‘new and improved’ State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. Marking the most recent in a line of tests hoping to fulfill the state’s quest of creating college ready students. It set out to accomplish this by making a series of changes geared at making a more difficult exam. However, the important question remains is the STAAR really a superior test? To tackle this question, I will begin by examining differences in the two tests, highlighting some important information from an article discussing the top 10 issues with the STAAR test by Save Texas Schools. I will then examine the data from two sets of TEA reports, and finally speculate as to why the STAAR is performing the way it is.

The STAAR test is the replacement for the TAKS but it certainly is not its spiritual successor. The two tests are dramatically different. The TAKS test or the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills was the reigning standardized test in Texas from 2003 to 2012. The TAKS also replaced an earlier standardized test the TAAS. However, the fact that both the TAKS and STAAR replaced an earlier standardized test may be where their similarities end. The STAAR test is the embodiment of a new philosophy for standardized testing in Texas. The TAKS test worked cumulatively, testing knowledge you should have acquired for that year, and continuing to evaluate knowledge from past tests. The STAAR test adopts a new end of course style where the exam is geared to evaluate your knowledge of one years’ worth of material. The STAAR test will also introduce a four-hour time limit to exams, dramatically diverging from its predecessor which allowed students virtually all day to complete it. The STAAR test is geared to be a more difficult test and many of its differences from the TAKS reflect this goal. For example, according to the article by Save Texas Schools, one major difference is that the STAAR will test 3 lexiles higher than the TAKS did for the same grade level (1). The article stipulates that a lexile is a numeric representation of an individual’s reading ability or a texts readability. In other words, the questions will be more difficult to comprehend. Not only will the test have questions which could be harder to understand, but it will also ask more questions on the same content than its predecessor. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the STAAR is going to raise the stakes in a big way. The TAKS test functioned as a standardized test which needed to be passed to satisfy requirements to move to the next grade level and ultimately graduate. The STAAR will work like that as well, but with the added caveat that the STAAR test will also count as 15% of the students’ final grade.

The move to a more difficult test reflects the desire to create better and ultimately more college ready students. At first glance it looks like these changes would accomplish that goal, but the data seems to tell a different story. The two graphs located at the bottom reflect data from two sets of TEA generated reports, the Texas Academic Performance Reports, and the Texas Academic Excellence Indicator System. Both these reports have a section where they indicate the number of high school graduates who meet the college readiness standard for English Language Arts and Mathematics. These standards were generated when the 79th Legislature commissioned both the higher education board and TEA to conduct extensive studies to determine the skills necessary to succeed in higher education. The STAAR test having begun in 2012 is limited in that only four years-worth of data is currently available. In the interest of making a fair comparison the years chosen for the TAKS test are the first four it was in effect. When we examine this data, we see that the STAAR test starts with a higher percentage of students meeting these standards, but ultimately by the fourth year the STAAR test shows a decline to the point that the TAKS test has a higher percentage of students meeting the standard. In the big picture, we see the STAAR steadily declining in the percentage of students meeting the standards under it, while during the TAKS four years it demonstrated a consistent increase in students meeting the standard. This increase ultimately culminates in the TAKS having a higher percentage of students achieving the standards in its fourth year in effect. Ultimately this paints a picture that perhaps the TAKS test was more adequately achieving the goal of preparing Texas’s youth for higher education. This begs an important question: why might the STAAR be failing?

The STAAR test is clearly the more difficult test, and one would think that a more difficult test would mean students need to be better prepared. Following that line of logic, it would make sense to assume better prepared students would be more college ready, but that does not seem to be the case. The reason here is that while the STAAR succeeds in demanding more from students it does have some potentially serious issues. According to the article by Save Texas Schools, the STAAR has issues when it comes to removing control from local districts, greatly expanding the number of exit level tests, and possibly causing a negative impact on student’s college admission prospects (1). In the past standardized tests have just been used to gauge student’s performances and while they were necessary to move forward they did not have an impact on a student’s grade. Teachers had large levels of discretion with their students and because these are the people who see a student’s academic performance on a consistent basis we naturally allowed them to make the final determination on a student. However, now that these standardized tests must account for 15% of a student’s grades we remove a significant amount of discretion away from them. Not only that, but these tests which are meant to help students achieve college readiness may end up hindering them when a bad performance on a test could damage a student’s GPA and hurt their chances for admission to competitive schools. Finally, the STAAR changes the number of exit level tests students must pass for graduation from four under the TAKS to 15. This vastly increases the workload for teachers and likely will encourage more teaching to the test rather than letting educators do what they do best and teach students the skills they need to succeed.

The STAAR test marks a bold transition in the philosophy of standardized tests in Texas, but could very well be another failure. While the increased difficulty of the test may better prepare students for the rigorous work of college the issues with it seem to negate the benefits it presents.

SOURCES

1. “Top Ten Problems with the STAAR.” Savetxschools.org. Save Texas Schools, n.d. Web. <http://savetxschools.org/top-ten-problems-with-the-staar-test/>.

Data Sources for Graphs:

https://rptsvr1.tea.texas.gov/perfreport/aeis/

https://rptsvr1.tea.texas.gov/perfreport/tapr/