Is the Texas STAAR test too hard?

Is the Texas STAAR test too hard?
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The old business school adage is true — what gets measured gets done. No one disputes the importance of reading in education. That’s why it’s even more important to measure how well our children are reading.

Yet in recent weeks, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) statewide reading test has faced criticism both within our state and from outside. A New York Times article asks, “Texas Says Most of Its Students Aren’t Reading at Grade Level. But Are Its Tests Fair?”

“A persistent narrative of failure, backed by low student test scores, has undermined the public’s trust in local education systems, critics say,” the Times reports. 

But it’s about more than a “narrative of failure.” It’s about ensuring our kids can read and do math and are prepared to participate in our economy and society.

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Nobody relishes big-government testing of children, and no test is perfect. But we desperately need an independent check on our Texas schools. Texas public schools educate 5.4 million kids; yet 606,000 of them are assigned with little choice to traditional schools that are graded D or F. Our goal isn’t to make those schools feel better about themselves; it’s to transparently check children’s reading progress and ensure improvement. 

Texas’ STAAR test is one of many data sets that parents, teachers, administrators and lawmakers have to measure a child’s success. To ensure that the STAAR data is clear, Texas stopped using meaningless words like “satisfactory” and “needs improvement” a couple of years ago. Instead, Texas now tells parents if their child is approaching grade level, meeting grade level, or mastering grade level. And it gives each school district and school an A-F letter grade. In addition, parents can see every single STAAR question, every answer, every answer rationale and how their child compared to other children in their school, district and state, along with other important data. 

The STAAR results even include a helpful list of books appropriate for their child’s reading level, to assist parents in encouraging their kids to read.

Critics of the STAAR tests say it’s too hard — but is it? It’s not the only data set we have. The STAAR test says that 54 percent of Texas schoolkids read below grade level. That comports with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “nation’s report card,” which shows that students throughout Texas, across nearly all demographics, are losing ground in reading. The NAEP reports that Texas fourth graders ranked 45th in the nation in reading, while eighth graders ranked 41st.

Another data set comes from ACT and SAT scores. Again, they show that Texas students are struggling. Now, bear in mind that these tests only score the kids who take them — a self-selected sample of students who intend to go on to college. Yet of the more than 146,000 students who took the ACT in 2017, only 26 percent were college-ready in all four measured categories (English, reading, math and science).

A common complaint is that the STAAR unfairly penalizes test-takers who have limited English skills or come from a disadvantaged background.

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But that’s easily refuted. There are Texas schools, such as Putegnat Elementary in Brownsville ISD, that are knocking the test out of the park. Putegnat Elementary’s student population is 99 percent poor (measured by whether they qualify for free/reduced lunch), and 97 percent Hispanic. A full 77 percent are considered “English learners.” Yet 80 percent of its third-graders are reading at or above grade level.

Here’s an analogy I like to use. You might not like the X-ray that shows your arm is broken. Fine, nobody likes bad news; it’s often smart to get a second opinion. But if an MRI and other scans also show your arm is broken, the sensible thing to do is get it set — not throw out the X-ray machine.

We need more accountability and transparency in our education system, not less. The STAAR test — designed and approved, by the way, with the help of Texas teachers — is one useful tool to help us ensure Texas kids are receiving the education they deserve. It’s time to stop blaming the test and start focusing on ensuring children can read.

Kara Belew is the senior education policy advisor at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Previously Belew served as Deputy Commissioner of Finance at the Texas Education Agency.