As we approach the end of the school year, the upcoming STAAR exam looms large in public school classrooms.
STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) is the series of standardized exams that students from third grade through high school take each year under the pretext of determining if they are performing at grade level.
Not only do these tests attempt to determine if students are exposed to and learning grade level content, but they are also used to determine if students in grades five and eight will advance to middle and high school and if high schoolers will pass certain classes and even be able to graduate.
They are also used to evaluate teacher performance and rate schools and districts.
The impact of standardized testing in schools
Whether or not standardized tests like STAAR are useful in determining the quality of education students are receiving, we do know that the tests have had an enormous impact on schools and students’ learning experiences.
Student STAAR scores make up the largest component of the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) accountability system. TEA gives schools and districts grades of A-F based primarily on STAAR test scores. The state of Texas requires the closure of schools deemed poor performing for five or more years.
Despite evidence that closing low rated schools does not improve educational outcomes and may have long term impacts on neighborhoods, districts that do not close F rated schools (or give management responsibility over to a third party) will be taken over by the state. Districts are under a lot of pressure to ensure that students do well on STAAR tests and this pressure trickles down to every student in our schools.
The impact of STAAR goes well beyond the test days and affects more than the students taking the tests.
Students do not begin taking the STAAR test until third grade, but to predict how students will perform on STAAR in the future, SAISD and other districts administer quarterly assessments of students starting in PreK.
While not required by state law, every student takes a computerized test (known as CIRCLE in PreK and MAP in elementary and middle school) at the beginning, middle and end of the school year. When students reach third grade, they take the state mandated STAAR test in addition to the district-required assessment and a non-state required practice STAAR exam.
Students in fifth grade must pass STAAR to move on to middle school. Students in eighth grade must pass STAAR to move on to high school. And students in high school must pass End of Course (EOC) exams in certain subjects to pass the related course and to graduate.
Although there are provisions that allow students to move to the next grade and graduate without passing these tests, many students and parents do not learn about them until the student has failed the tests multiple times and has experienced the fear and humiliation of possibly not moving up or graduating with their friends.
On STAAR testing days, most campuses function as if on lockdown.
Students in all grades — not just tested grades — are often told to be quiet all day, and many schools do not allow recess for any students on testing days. It’s not unheard of for schools to cancel recess on MAP and practice STAAR testing days also.
Some schools and classrooms use public data walls where students’ score information is displayed publicly. The belief is that this will encourage students to take ownership of their learning and performance. While these walls do not identify students by name, it isn’t hard for students to figure out how their classmates scored. Imagine being a third grader who struggles with reading and knowing you are one of the lowest performers in your class. Now imagine that your classmates have figured that out too. Do you feel inspired to learn and joyful about school? How would you feel if this happened year after year? Or if you had to regularly attend Saturday school because of your test scores while your friends enjoyed their weekends?
For many students, this is their educational experience.
I do not mean to paint our school system as totally joyless. Teachers and school staff work hard to make learning and classroom time fun despite the tests. Students do have time to participate in fine arts and physical education, but the STAAR test plays an outsized role in our schools.
Schools are not rated on the quality of their fine arts programs, how much their students enjoy being at school or how welcome families feel on campuses. As long as STAAR is our state’s primary tool of measuring school quality, these other important aspects of public education will not matter as much as test scores.
Can we end or reduce the role of STAAR in our schools?
STAAR may feel like an inevitability, but it is not.
Parents can opt their students out of STAAR and EOC exams. I know parents whose children never took one of these exams and successfully graduated. This is not a route for the faint of heart though. It involves reiterating to teachers and school administrators year after year that your child will not be taking STAAR. There are organizations and groups in Texas that provide information for parents interested in opting out. More information and resources on opting out can be found here.
While opting out is a choice for individual families to consider, advocating for a change in district and state testing practices is the best way to end the over testing of all students.
At the district level, parents can ask district leaders to end or reduce the number of non-state-required assessments that students must take. Information on the SAISD Leadership team can be found here.
At the state level groups like Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and Raise Your Hand Texas are advocating for school accountability measures that would reduce the high stakes nature of STAAR and create assessments that take a more holistic view of student achievement and schools. For information on communicating with these organizations and participating in their activities, click here and here.
The conversation on ending STAAR has already started in Texas, but it is up to parents, teachers, students and district leaders to come together to advocate for a fairer school accountability system that does not harm students or our communities.
Student taking a standardized test
The scores that students receive on these tests not only impact their personal education journey, but they can also affect staffing at their school and even determine if their school is allowed to stay open to serve their neighborhood.
There is an enormous amount of pressure on students, teachers, and administrators to do well on these exams. This pressure infiltrates almost every aspect of the school year and impacts our student’s educational experiences.
The evolution of standardized testing in public education
Standardized tests have long been used in the American education system. The first widely adopted ones were not designed to measure student achievement but rather, to measure student aptitude.
These early tests grew out of the racist and ableist eugenics movement and served largely to justify policies that kept the military and education institutions segregated. The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), the American College Testing (ACT) and Advanced Placement tests all have roots in the eugenics movement.
The widespread use of standardized tests to assess how well students are learning at school and to determine the quality of the education they are receiving began in 1965 with the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Standardized testing ramped up significantly with the No Child Left Behind policy in 2001 and Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.
In theory, these tests are aimed at:
Determining if students are learning and understanding grade level material
Identifying areas where students may need more support before they fall far behind their peers
Determining if schools are providing a high-quality education to all students.
The actual usefulness of these tests in determining student knowledge and school quality, however, has been the subject of debate since these tests were first implemented on a large scale.
Test scores consistently correlate with socio-economic and racial demographics. Low-income students and students of color score lower on average than their higher-income and white peers. Some argue this demonstrates that low-income students and students of color are receiving a lesser quality education, while others argue that these tests are biased and only serve to highlight racial and economic inequity in our country.
Sarah Sorensen is our district's representative on the SAISD Board of Trustees
There is an enormous amount of pressure on students, teachers, and administrators to do well on these exams.