Agenda Texas
10:16 am
Mon March 18, 2013

STAAR testing under review

How many tests are too many for Texas students?

Ben Philpott / KUT

If you’ve got kids, you know the state rolled out a new testing system last school year called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR. It includes 15 end-of-course exams that high school students must pass in order to graduate. A number State Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) wants to cut.

“So we want to reduce the number of tests, the number of testing days,” Sen. Patrick said. “But we want to be sure our students are ready for career and college.”

Patrick is leading the charge to reduce the number of high school STAAR tests from 15 to 5. It’s an idea some parents and teachers cheer, as concerns about overtesting have grown with harder and more frequent tests.

But critics worry: could reducing tests also reduce standards?

“I’ve seen some mis-reporting by the media and others that we are stepping back on rigor. And I argue just the opposite,” Sen. Patrick said.

One example he points to is a new requirement in his bill for all students to take two years of a foreign language, sign language or computer language.

But that’s not enough, according to Drew Scheberle, who focuses on college and career readiness for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“Senator Patrick’s bill reduces the English requirement from English 11 down to English 10,” Scheberle said. “Now 11 is bigger than 10. So this is lowering the English requirements.”

The only math tests students would have to pass would be Algebra I, which is taught in 9th grade. And in science, only Biology would be tested. Scheberle said if tests have to be cut, there’s a better way to do it.

He’d like to see at least the higher level courses tested, like 11th grade English instead of 10th grade, and Algebra II instead of Algebra I.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams says he’d support between 6 and 12 tests. But he warns against dropping too many, too quickly.

“I would ask everybody…pump your breaks…slow your roll. We’re only in the 2nd year of STAAR testing,” Williams said.

Williams has already put some STAAR concessions in place. The exams were supposed to count 15 percent toward a student’s final grade. Williams signed an order late last year that kept that from happening.

Supporting STAAR with Money

One thing that complicates the fight over what to do with school testing: Will the state fund it?

While rolling out a harder test in 2011, the state not only cut overall instructional dollars but specifically lawmakers cut the money schools use to help tutor students who fail STAAR tests. It's a move that goes against the education philosophy of former Florida governor and rumored 2016 GOP Presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

“One thing that’s important in a journey of reform is that you fund the reforms 1st and everything else 2nd,” Bush told lawmakers at a hearing a few weeks ago at the Texas Capitol.

Bush delighted Democrats on the panel by also pushing the idea of putting more money into education.

“To me that is essential. You want to create strategies of success. You don’t want to create continued failure,” Bush said.

More money could be on the way. You may recall a Travis County judge ruled last month that the state is not adequately funding public education. He suggested it might take another $10 billion a year to do the trick. But the Austin Chamber’s Drew Scheberle said current legislation may cut that need.

“If Senator Patrick’s bill is successful, and they lower the expectations below what they are even under the TAKS test, it may suggest that schools need even less month then they have today to meet lower standards,” Scheberle said.

A cynical view, but last session’s $5.4 billion in education cuts and the current efforts to restore only about $1.5 billion even with more money in the bank has educators feeling pretty cynical these days.