Preliminary data released to districts in June show Tomball and Magnolia ISD's ninth graders exceeding statewide averages in most categories in the STAAR end of course exams. The only category in which passing rates were under state averages was Magnolia ISD's Algebra I scores, which showed 78 percent of students passing, while the statewide average was 83. This year's ninth grade class is the first to have to pass up to 15 end-of-course exams to graduate high school.

Magnolia ISD Superintendent Todd Stephens said the district is tentatively optimistic about students' performances on the end-of-course exams.

"Our biology and geography numbers were a little ahead of the state, but anytime you have numbers where 10 percent aren't meeting standards, that's a cause for concern," he said. "We're still trying to get an understanding of where we stand and what we need to do to have the kids college ready, so we still have a lot of work to do."

Low writing scores

One area where students fell short statewide was in English 1–writing, with 55 percent meeting the passing standard. The passing percentage was the same in Magnolia ISD, while Tomball ISD exceeded the state average with 64 percent of students passing. Part of the reason for the lower scores is the way passing standards were set, with the Texas Education Agency setting passing score for reading and writing tests at 65 percent, while all other tests were set at 34 percent.

"The [test makers] did a lot of correlation studies to college entrance exams and what students need to do on a writing test like this to perform in college," said Anita Hebert, Magnolia ISD assistant superintendent of curriculum. "I've heard from the TEA they want that bar to be high because they want students to achieve it, including our English language learners."

To meet these new, more rigorous standards, Tomball and Magnolia ISDs held week-long remediation courses in June for students wishing to retake the test in early July. The state is requiring all students who did not meet the minimum points needed to be on track for graduation retake the test, while students who did pass but wish to improve their score, can also retake the test, Hebert said.

Students will have another opportunity to retake the test this fall, and both districts are planning in-class and after school help.

"Teachers will be aware of which of their students didn't meet the standard and special attention will be given to students who need it in class," said Randy Reedy, Tomball ISD's director of accountability.

Teachers will also be participating in staff development workshops this summer.

"We're working with teachers to make any curriculum changes needed to better prepare students for what we didn't do well on," Hebert said.

High stakes

While the districts work overtime to ensure its teachers and students are better prepared for the higher stakes testing, the state has not handed down any additional funding to pay for the increased staffing and materials needed to meet the demands of the STAAR testing.

"We're required to offer tutoring programs during the summer or school year, and we have to figure out how to fund that ourselves," Hebert said.

This increased burden on the school districts and emphasis on high stakes testing has caused 545 districts across the state, including Magnolia ISD, to pass the Resolution Concerning High Stakes, Standardized Testing of Texas Public School Students.

"Our concern is that we certainly understand that accountability needs to be a part of instruction, but looking at where we have moved to, specifically with the STAAR test, it's gone a little far," Stephens said. "I hear it from parents and the community—with this number of tests and the high stakes nature of it, it's gone too far."

Tomball ISD did not sign the resolution.

Starting next year, the STAAR end-of-course exams will count as 15 percent of high school students' final grades, which will affect their GPA and class rank. TEA Commissioner Robert Scott gave districts the option to delay the 15 percent rule for the 2011-12 school year, and Tomball and Magnolia ISDs joined 1,148 other districts across the state in deferring the rule.

Students in third through ninth grades took the STAAR test in March. Districts received raw scores for third through eighth graders, but passing standards will not be set and provided to districts until November. Students will receive their individual reports in January 2013.