Educators, parents, and policymakers around the state have been stunned by disappointing results in the first State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, aka STAAR tests. The big question that now plagues Texas educators is simple: Are the test and benchmarks wrong, or are school districts working from the wrong curriculum?
This year the Texas Education Agency provided STAAR assessments for third through eighth grades, but the first round of end-of-course tests for ninth graders – algebra I, world geography, biology, and especially the reading and writing component of English I – is attracting the most interest and generating the most concern. African-American and Hispanic students, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds or are learning English as a second language, had problems with reading and writing. The statewide numbers speak for themselves. Only 16% of Asian students and 18% of white students failed the English I Reading test, but that number balloons to 41% for Hispanic students. More disturbingly, only 3% of students statewide have hit all the state-set benchmarks to be college- or career-ready at graduation.
The Austin Independent School District's numbers closely track statewide statistics but represent a curious switch. Under the old TAKS test, district students generally performed better in their English language test scores than in math or the sciences; that trend is reversed in the new scores. The response to these grim numbers has been twofold. First, AISD launched summer "boot camps" at Anderson and Bowie high schools, designed to get kids up to standard by the time retesting begins on July 9. By the first day of classes on June 12, AISD said 518 students had signed up. Edmund Oropez, associate superintendent of high schools, said the district had done sample testing throughout the year and already knew it would have to provide this emergency tuition. He said, "That's when budgets and staff were developed to create the boot camps, well in advance of what we knew the scores were going to be."
However, he described them as a "stopgap" until the district can revise its curriculum. Since the preliminary results came out, Executive Director of Curriculum Suzanne Burke, her staff, and what Burke called a "curriculum writers cadre" of approximately 200 teachers have been revising the curriculum. Summer revisions are normal, according to Burke, who called the curriculum a "living document." Her office will be running professional development sessions over the summer to bring teachers up to speed, she said, "but the question for us is what happens from August to May." Like most AISD offices, her staff has been cut to the bone. Now, instead of one-on-one sessions, her professional development staff has shifted to a "just in time" structure – bring teachers from multiple schools and departments together for group sessions at cluster sites. Burke said, "We have in the past deployed them to individual campuses. I don't have the staff to have an impact on a district of 120 campuses."
For Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, none of this does anything to combat the idea that Texas education is simply about teaching to the test. A 12-year veteran language arts teacher, he said: "When I had 50% of my class fail the test, I didn't look at the kids. I looked at my assessment tool." Compare the minimum passing score in the online tests: 29 out of 56 in English I Reading (52%) and 40 out of 62 (65%) in English I Writing, but only 20 out of 54 (37%) for Biology and Algebra I. And there has been no real indication from TEA why the agency set the English language grades disproportionately higher. If the STAAR test is misrepresenting both student achievement and learning gaps, Zarifis said: "Let's make a stand against it. Boot camps are not a stand against it."
Possibly the most worrying aspect of the switchover is that these current new benchmarks are generous, as the TEA is phasing in the new STAAR standards over four years. The logic is that this allows teachers and students to build up to the new rigor, but they face a steep climb. For example, the English I Reading passing grade rises from 29 this year to 35 in 2016: If this year's cohort of ninth graders had faced that scale, only 46% would have reached the state minimum. As a member of the House Public Education Committee, those numbers concern Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin. He said, "If the scores don't improve fast enough, those pass rates are going to be abominably low, and we're going to have a real problem on our hands." He has heard that most students who failed English I did so narrowly, and it will only take minor curriculum changes to get them to a passing grade. Whether that is true, he said, "Only time will tell."
The TAKS system saw a similar ramp-up in grade targets, meaning teachers were shooting for a perpetually shifting and shrinking target. Changing the pass rate also makes it challenging for lawmakers to analyze year-on-year data, so Strama has requested "apples to apples" data from the TEA. His concern is that the impact of the state's education funding cuts are masked in the switch. He said, "There aren't many variables that have changed, other than not spending $5 billion."
Preliminary results for the 2012 STAAR tests show that AISD students passed at rates close to the state averages. However, because the Texas Education Agency is phasing in the test, passing grades will be significantly higher by the 2016 school year. Under those metrics ("full standards"), passing rates would drop dramatically.
|Passing Rates||State Avg.||AISD Avg.||Under Full Standards|
|English I: Reading||68%||69%||46%|
|English I: Writing||55%||54%||34%|
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