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Group questions state's student accountability system

Written by Bobby Vasquez. Posted in News

TAMSA gives PTOs insight to design flaws of STAAR

As state accountability tests make graduation requirements more difficult for Texas' high school students, one organization is disappointed in the tests' results in the classroom and students.

TAMSA – Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment – is a statewide, grassroots organization comprised of parents and other community members concerned with what it calls "the overemphasis on high-stakes STAAR tests and the misallocation of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to the tests that should be going to the classroom."

Susan Kellner, who recently retired from the Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees, spoke at this month's Deer Park ISD PTO Roundtable Meeting.

In 2007, the Texas legislature voted to phase out TAKS tests and introduce State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and end of course exams. By implementing these tests, Kellner said, legislators more than tripled the number of exams needed to graduate high school.

"They went from four tests to 15," she said. "Superintendents across the state have spoken up against this. But when parents started talking, legislators started listening. The power of the parent had not really been used before. As parents, we want to know how our kids are doing in school."

Kellner said TAMSA is asking questions that it feels the Texas legislature didn't ask when developing these standardized tests.

"What is the goal of these tests? If it is to see that our students are college and career ready, then we have to look at a test that our colleges care about," she said. "Why are we driving a system where if we are wanting our students to be college and career ready, then why are we using a test that the colleges and universities don't care about?"

Kellner said TAMSA is not looking to eliminate accountability testing.

"We strongly support accountability; personal accountability, accountability for our children, our schools. We are not opposed to assessments," she said.

Instead, TAMSA is hoping that in the 2013 state legislative session, lawmakers enact what the organization hopes are "meaningful, fair and appropriate" assessment tests.

STAAR testing starts in elementary. For grades three-eight, students must test in math and reading every year. In grades four and seven, students test in writing while in five and eight, they test in science. Eighth graders also test in social studies.

"The wheels fall off in high school," Kellner said. "Students must reach at least the minimum score on 15 end of course exams."

Students also face four stringent, complicated requirements.

The first is the end of course assessments. STAAR high school EOC assessments are English I, II and III (reading and writing); Algebra I and II; Geometry; Biology; Chemistry; Physics; World Geography; World History; and US History.

These EOC scores are required to account for 15 percent of a student's final course grade.

"Never mind that we don't even give final course grades. We give semester grades," Kellner said about district grading policies across the state. "That's the kind of high-stakes confusion that is interrupting our students."

"They said the implemented that because they said they want our students to have 'skin in the game,'" she said. "As a parent, I take great offense to that. Our kids are not pawns in any game. They already take this very seriously."

After the 15 percent rule sparked parental outrage, it was waived for this school year. It will be re-added in the next round of testing.

Then there is the cumulative score requirement, which Kellner said is so confusing, legislators who added it to the bill are not even sure how it works.

To graduate, a student must achieve a cumulative score that is at least equal to the product of the number of STARR EOC assessments in the content area and the satisfactory performance scale score. A student must achieve at least the minimum passing score in order for the score to count toward the cumulative score.

"It was intended to be a safety net for kids who did poorly on one test and well on two others," she said.

After changing the assessments, legislators also tightened college eligibility requirements.

To be eligible to attend a Texas four-year university, a student must graduate on the recommended or distinguished achievement program. Both programs require students to pass all 15 EOCs and meet a cumulative score requirements in each of the four content areas. For students to graduate on the recommended program, they must achieve a Level II performance on English III and Algebra II. For the distinguished program, they must achieve a Level III performance on English III and Algebra II.

"If you don't do all of that, you are not going to a four-year college," she said. "That's not really fair to students, particularly with that Algebra II course. It's egregious. You might have students who are really good in humanities or arts and never intend to be an engineer or doctor. This prevents them from going to college to pursue whatever their gift is."

On the subject of accountability, Kellner said as a taxpayer, she doesn't mind legislators spending time or money on testing if it is a true measure of a student.

"But over 15 years, we have spent billions of dollars and our students are not college and career ready. Texas has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation," she said.

Citing numbers from the Center for Education at Rice University, Kellner said from 2000-2015, state tax dollars have spent $1.178 billion on Pearson Assessments. Pearson is the only vendor the state uses for testing.

Kellner said the money amounts to $2 spent every second of every day for the last 15 years. Most districts spend less than $2 on students needing lunch assistance. The total comes up to $50,400 every seven hours, which would be enough to three teachers per day or 1,277 teachers per year every year.

"It's money we are spending on tests instead of the classroom," she said.

With more than a billion dollars spent on testing, Kellner said it would be reasonable to expect on higher scores on state and national exams.

Since 2003, the percentage of the sum of all students passing the TAKS test rose. However, Texas students' mean SAT scores from 2003 to 2010 have flatlined.

In the first year of 2012 Statewide English I EOC tests, 32 percent failed their spring reading test and 45 percent failed writing. The numbers went to 62 percent and 76 percent respectively for those who retested in the summer.

"Those students are already behind and they are just in the 10th grade. They will have trouble catching up and keeping up because they have the English II EOC tests looming," Kellner said. "That doesn't help the drop out rate. Even if they go on to pass, it changes the high school experience. The remediation and extra testing that is involved is expensive."

Students already have plenty of incentive to do well on end of course exams when they are required for graduation, she said. Texas is the only state that requires EOC computed into GPA and for graduation.

Kellner said TAMSA is asking legislators to remove Algebra II and English III performance level requirements as prerequisites for obtaining a recommended or distinguished diploma and college admission.

The organization is also asking lawmakers to remove the cumulative score requirement or at least make it optional.

TAMSA suggestions are to use one English, one math and one science EOC; and use the ACT test for all 11th graders.

She said TAMSA has spent the last several months meeting with lawmakers, businesses, school districts, parent groups, testing bureaus and experts and written op-eds on various matters on assessment testing.

The ramifications of state standardized testing is already felt in the local economy.

DPISD Superintendent Arnold Adair said there are some 7,000 local jobs that are unfilled because the companies require a different skill set than what the state is testing for.

"The tests today prohibit us from having the flexibility to meet the students' needs as well as our local needs. This community exists because of industry and right now, we are not able to give students the option of filling those jobs because our hands are tied with what we have to test for."

TAMSA is online at www.tamsatx.org