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Texas group tells state lawmakers: You don’t have to scrap STAAR, but please change it

People behind a podium at a news conference next to a poster that says "Raise Your Hand Texas."
Becky Fogel
/
KUT
UT Austin Professor Angela Valenzuela speaks during a news conference outside the Texas Capitol on Tuesday.

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A group that advocates for public education is urging Texas lawmakers to rethink the role state standardized testing plays in assessing students and schools.

“It’s time to reign in STAAR and the stronghold it has on our teachers and schools,” Kelli Moulton, a former superintendent, said at the state Capitol on Tuesday.

Moulton chairs the Measure What Matters Assessment and Accountability Council, a nonpartisan group of education leaders and policymakers that Raise Your Hand Texas formed last winter.

The council released a report Tuesday based on feedback gathered over the last year from 15,600 people about the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, tests. More than 4,700 of those who shared their opinions were parents and family members; another 6,800 were teachers.

The report’s recommendations can be broken into two categories: how to change the STAAR test and how to change the role it plays in evaluating school districts and campuses. Raise Your Hand Texas hopes the report provides a roadmap for state lawmakers next legislative session.

When it comes to the test itself, the group says students should not be required to pass STAAR end-of-course exams to graduate from high school. It argues the STAAR tests should be only one of a variety of ways to measure academic performance and whether students are ready to move on to the next grade or graduate.

Moulton said test results are just one datapoint.

“It does not tell a story,” she said. “What it does is it gives evidence to look beyond, to customize instructional delivery for students so that they can continue to achieve.”

Another member of the council, Angela Valenzuela, agreed STAAR tests do not accurately assess students’ capabilities, adding the high stakes nature of the exams put a lot of pressure on them.

“There are all these stories of children on test day throwing up on their exams and children with anxiety attacks. And it really just reflects a misplaced priority,” said Valenzuela, a professor with UT Austin’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy.

Another recommendation in the report is to cut back on the number of STAAR tests students must take to align with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. A couple of exams, including the eighth grade social studies STAAR test and the U.S. history end-of-course exam, are not required by federal law. Raise Your Hand Texas also points out that ESSA does not require passing a state standardized test to be used as a graduation requirement.

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Raise Your Hand Texas

The group is calling for an independent evaluation of STAAR to determine whether the tests are readable, valid and culturally appropriate. In theory, Valenzuela said, tests are supposed to distinguish between high and low achievers.

“But what we know from psychometrics — the way that the tests are developed — is that they systematically discriminate on the basis of race and class,” she said. “This is why we should never use a test taken on one day of the year as a metric for whether a student is capable or not capable.”

Valenzuela said Texas needs to change course and evaluate students in a more holistic way.

“We’re not doing things that we know will actually address the equitable issues. We’re not going to test our way to equity,” she said. “If that were the case it would have happened already."

STAAR is not only used to determine whether students can graduate from high school, but the results also play a significant role in how the state evaluates school districts and campuses. The Texas Education Agency first rolled out the now familiar A-F ratings during the 2017-2018 school year. Initially, the ratings were used only to grade districts. But, the following year, both districts and campuses got A-F ratings.

That all changed with the start of the COVID pandemic during the 2019-2020 school year. STAAR was canceled and the state did not issue school accountability ratings. Districts began receiving ratings again during the 2021-2022 academic year. Still any district or school that received a grade lower than “C” was listed as “not rated.”

While Raise Your Hand Texas is not suggesting the state scrap the A-F rating system altogether, it has proposed changes to the accountability system. Primarily, the group wants school districts and campuses to be evaluated on indicators beside STAAR test scores. New indicators for students in pre-K through 12th grade could include attendance, access to extracurricular activities, school climate and documented teacher-retention strategies.

Moulton outlined another change the group wants to see.

“Limit the high stakes nature of STAAR by restricting their weight in school accountability ratings to no more than 50%,” she said.

Raise Your Hand Texas also wants the Texas Education Agency to develop a report on alternative accountability ratings systems that could better respond to local communities. The group said five states — Connecticut, Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland and Nebraska — could serve as models. In each of these states, the assessment and accountability systems take an array of factors into account to evaluate student and school performance.

State lawmakers previously have tried to make several of the changes proposed by Raise Your Hand Texas. During the last legislative session in 2021, a bipartisan bill that would have reduced STAAR testing passed with overwhelming support in the Texas House before dying in the state Senate. House Bill 764 would have eliminated exams not required by federal law. It also would have allowed districts to replace STAAR end-of-course exams with tests like the ACT or SAT to meet federal testing requirements for high school students. Texas House members approved that bill 136-6.

While the Texas Legislature did not OK that bill, it has approved others in the last few years. State lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 calling for a redesign of the STAAR test. The Texas Education Agency is rolling out the updated test during the 2022-2023 school year. Another bill lawmakers approved in 2021 requires STAAR tests to be administered online by this school year.

The Legislature reconvenes in January.

*Raise Your Hand Texas has been a sponsor of KUT.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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