STAAR focuses on end-of-course exams

Conroe Independent School District is ready for the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests that will take place in March and April, but not without a few fears and reservations.

"A new type of assessment takes a few years to see how the game is played," said Deputy Superintendent Chris Hines. "But even though change is hard, we are blessed with an outstanding teaching staff that helps us [to] be prepared for any new challenge."


STAAR replaces the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Though mandated in 2007, a transition plan to STAAR was not available until late 2010.

Testing at the elementary and junior high levels will be similar to TAKS, but high school assessments have been replaced with 12 end-of-course exams in the subjects in which the student is enrolled that year — such as English, algebra, science and social studies.

STAAR is expected to show student progress in a wider range and with more detail than TAKS, Hines said. That, in turn, will allow the district to better target where curriculum is succeeding and where it is failing.

In addition, Hines is eager to see how the high school testing will work out, not only because the tests will be administered before teachers have completed their projected course schedule, but also because the state has mandated that the tests be used as 15 percent of the student's overall grade.

"We've tried to get on the front end by making sure curriculum is aligned with the state's curriculum, which has improved the rigor of our own testing," Hines said. "We are working on how to integrate that into our grading system, which has typically been handled at the local level."

Parent concerns

Pam Sweebe, who has a sophomore at The University of Texas and a 12-year-old in junior high school in The Woodlands, said each of her daughters had different experiences with the standardized testing.

Between her two daughters, Sweebe has been through TAKS and its predecessor, Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. She sees the tests measuring where students stand at the point of the test versus what was taught and what will come.

Because of that, she doesn't anticipate the introduction of STAAR affecting her 12-year-old's education.

"There are still benchmark years where they have to achieve a certain score in order to advance to the next grade level," hSweebe said.

She said her 12-year-old was frustrated with the series of testing that occurred before and after the winter break.

"I just wish there was more coordination," she said. "A single test could serve more than one purpose so the kids can get back to the day-to-day activities and the hands-on experience that gives them the basis to sit down and take the tests."

Purpose of standardized testing

Suzanne Marchman, spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, said that since the early 1980s, Texas has utilized standardized testing to ensure students are learning what they need to know before they are promoted to the next grade—and to determine how well the school is educating its students.

But in recent years, data has shown a higher number of college freshman taking remedial courses due to not being adequately prepared for college, Marchman said. Other complaints came in, which included instructors teaching to the test or having the students memorizing what they need to know in order to pass the tests.

Those complaints prompted the Texas Legislature to move for more rigorous exams that would include testing for college readiness skills. Skills will be tested through open-ended questions where the student will have to know the answer without being given choices, Marchman added.

Administration costs

TEA does not expect the $4 billion in recent budget cuts to education funding to interfere with the STAAR tests, but Marchman said the administration of the test will cost more than in previous years.

In 2010, Texas renewed its contract with New Jersey-based education publishing company Pearson Education Inc. for five years for $468 million, Marchman said.

Annually, the state expects to spend about $90 million to administer the standardized tests because the STAAR test involves more testing at the high school level and the open-ended questions and essays will have to be graded manually, she said. By contrast, TAKS, which was multiple-choice and could be graded with scanners, cost the state between $85 million and $87 million per year to administer.

Meanwhile, Marchman expects STAAR's phase-in period for expectations and requirements to be similar to TAKS.

"It may take three years before we see how students do," she said.