Questions About STAAR Tests Linger As The School Year (And Legislative Session) Wind Down

May 16, 2019

STAAR testing is just about over for this school year. The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness have been part of Texas students' lives since 2012, but questions raised this year about the reading test have brought renewed attention to the efficacy of the test – and standardized testing in general.

Texas Monthly Executive Editor Mimi Swartz started looking into the STAAR reading test earlier this year, and she found research suggesting the reading test may just be too hard for students.  Though, the  Texas Education Agency refutes those claims and says the STAAR reading test is grade level-appropriate.

KUT talked with Swartz about those findings and the implications for the STAAR testing in a state that takes its standardized testing very seriously:

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The following transcript has been edited for clarity.   

Jennifer Stayton: What does this new research suggest?

Mimi Swartz: The latest study — basically what's most interesting about it — is that the latest study found the same thing as a study completed in 2012 which is that to put it in the simplest way: The reading test is too hard for most kids. And so you're going to get these really low scores because they're not predominantly aimed at the proper grade level.

Stayton: The Texas Education Agency came out with a statement — also earlier this year — essentially challenging those challenges to the merits of the STAAR reading test and asserting that the reading test is, in fact, grade-level appropriate based on outside evaluations. So, what have you personally seen in the tests?

Swartz: I started reading a lot of those questions. They are stultifying. I think even the brightest kids might not be that excited by reading the STAAR test. I've talked to a reading expert who's also working on something for us and she talked about how a lot of times kids will perform better if they're engaged. And there's nothing really engaging about the reading on the STAAR test.

Stayton: Standardized testing has always been a high-stakes proposition in Texas, but what are the consequences of basing too much on what could be inappropriate barometers?

Swartz: In some cases if kids don't pass the test they won't advance to certain grade. If they don't pass that test they have to do remediation and they have to do summer school. But it also punishes teachers, it punishes schools in terms of funding. You know we're in the age of accountability which nobody is against by the way including me. But if your scores aren't at a certain level you're going to get punished which would be maybe OK if that test was legitimate. But there are a lot of people who definitely think it's not and I think you've got these academics who've been working on it for a long time with pretty good proof that it's not.

Stayton: So,  STAAR doesn’t have only a tangible impact on Texas students and schools?

Swartz: People writing about the emotional poll this test takes on these kids and even on the teachers — you know there's so much anxiety around the test because of the high stakes testing that I think everybody's just wipe out. I went to one hearing about that test a couple of months ago. And I think the legislators were stunned to hear about sort of the school day agony. They seemed very surprised to hear how much you know anxiety, illness, stress is associated. This is just you know it's sort of crazy land now I think we've seen enough evidence that this isn't really working for anyone.

Stayton: So, the ripple effect of low test scores could be felt well outside the classroom?

Swartz: It’s not just bad for the kids.You know that's what struck me is it's bad for the state. I mean you end up if you've got low performing schools then you've got a low performing neighborhood and you've got businesses that don't want to come in. This is my constant gripe. We're supposed to be the state of the future and we're supposed to have our handle on how you know how to go forward and the best way possible. And anybody else can look at the facts and say well wait a minute you know what about this. You know this low ranking on education. Why would I want to move my corporation?

Stayton: So, what happens next? In their statement earlier this year, the Texas Education Agency stands by the STAAR reading test and says incorrect criteria were used to assess the appropriateness of their grade level. The state legislature has toyed with making some changes to the STAAR testing system this session, but so far they have taken no final action and the session ends on May 27.

Swartz: What I've been told when I ask is 'Well, this is political.' This is an issue about you know who's going to control education in the state. Is it going to be a State Government PTA or school superintendents and I think OK that's a valid point. But I think the opposition to this test is pretty widespread. And so the stonewalling doesn't seem like a very good idea.