In March and April, Tomball and Magnolia students will begin taking the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests. While the districts have spent the past two years preparing for the change from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, many unknowns remain.
"The concern I have, and what I hear from parents, is that with the increased rigor and increased number of tests, it seems to accentuate the fact that school has become more and more about testing and our instruction becomes more revolved around the test," said Magnolia ISD Superintendent Tood Stephens.
In contrast to TAKS, high school students must pass the STAAR tests in order to graduate. While the state had also mandated the testing account for 15 percent of the student's overall grade, the Texas Education Agency's House Bill 3 Transition Plan was modified to allow schools to defer this for one school year. Both Tomball and Magnolia ISDs have deferred the implementation until the 2012–13 school year.
Districts have been preparing for the STAAR testing since a transition plan was made available in late 2010, three years after the test was mandated by the state in 2007.
"Directors have been working with teachers all year on the new standards for testing," Tomball ISD director of accountability Randy Reedy said. "Tomball ISD has emphasized that our teachers teach the curriculum, and the test will take care of itself."
Reedy said the most common concerns from parents is the amount of testing students must endure and the emphasis on testing over instruction.
While the districts will not receive a copy of the STAAR test, the Texas Education Agency has given them guidelines of what they can expect and two Magnolia ISD district employees were involved in the development process, along with other administrators and teachers around the state.
According to Magnolia ISD director of curriculum Anita Hebert, the language arts tests have a stronger emphasis on writing and reading high level texts, including more informational texts.
"The emphasis is to prepare kids for college and for success in a global market," said Hebert, who was involved in the three-year process of writing the STAAR test. "It's a big switch for English teachers because they are now teaching half-nonfiction and half-fiction pieces. It's so different from what they've been accustomed to."
For math and science teachers, the emphasis is on asking questions in a way that produces critical thinking and encourages discussion, according to Magnolia ISD director of mathematics Susie Johnson.
"The testing level is more rigorous—a two-step problem will become a four-step problem," Johnson said. "We're giving the teachers a different language to teach in."
Both Hebert and Johnson said the teachers have been adapting well to the changes and are working well as a team.
"In a lot of ways it's been really good because we've developed a real professional culture," she said. "They're working hard at it to do the best they can even though we feel somewhat like we're shooting in the dark."
For now, it is a game of wait-and-see for the districts.
"[The students] knew since they were seventh graders that they were on the path to be the first group of students to take the STAAR tests," Stephens said. "What's unknown is the passing standard. We still have a lot of questions—it will be a real learning process to see how it all pans out."