As districts across the state await the release of the most recent test scores, local educators in Hays and San Marcos CISDs said they administered the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—or STAAR exams—in April after working throughout the 2022-23 school year to adapt to the new question varieties and move to an online testing format.

The districts also worked toward improving technology resources, increasing their focus on typing skills and responding to open-ended questions.

The now entirely online format for the exam was due to House Bill 3906, which passed in the 86th legislative session in 2019 and called for the redesign to the STAAR test.

Both districts focused on preparing teachers to teach the new question types and supplied all students with technology to transition into the new exam.

“I think the experience of, ‘This is not new for us,’ really helped us in the process of moving to the complete online format,” SMCISD Chief Academic Officer Terrence Sanders said.

Lily Laux, the Texas Education Agency’s deputy commissioner of school programs, said the redesign and move online came about through work to “understand from teachers and from other folks what would a better STAAR experience look like.”

Weighing the scores

The new redesign highlighted unique hurdles for some districts.

SMCISD’s raw scores, which were released to districts in June, indicated the writing component proved difficult for testers.

“They can read a passage; they can answer it, [but] when it gets into writing ... we need to expend some resources to support our teachers and kids in that area,” SMCISD Superintendent Michael Cardona said.

Apart from the issues, Cardona cited gains at the elementary level along with English II, social studies and science scores, which were all roughly within the state’s expected performance standards. The SMCISD school board’s goal is for every campus’s accountability rating to increase by one letter grade. From an administrative standpoint, Cardona said he would like for every campus to be rated a B or higher.

“[The TEA has] tried to simplify things in some areas, putting the writing I think probably was a good thought but I think it created some issues,” Cardona said.

Derek McDaniel, HCISD’s executive officer of curriculum and instruction, said the raw scores show the district’s writing tallied a half point to a full point higher than the state’s average.

Each district was challenged by the method used to assess the writing portion, which became a “little bit of an issue” with the third- and fourth-graders for HCISD, McDaniel said. But teachers did a bit of typing practice to get students more comfortable typing on keyboards during benchmark testing.

Cardona said the assessment can be debated with pros and cons.

“It’s what’s in front of us, and at the end of the day, I think what we’re trying to do is understand each of the stories that every kid brings into the building and then put a system in place that allows for them to grow and develop,” Cardona said.

Reviewing the redesign

For HCISD, teachers began training to teach the new format in January 2022. The district worked to put together trainings and assessments to inform teachers on what the new question types were going to look like and worked to build assessments that “mirror” the STAAR.

“Teachers started embedding those into their lessons in little bite-sized chunks,” McDaniel said. “It was really about exposure. We just didn’t want our kids to get to the test and see a format that [wasn’t familiar].”

According to Laux, there were several new components to the test to ensure students had more than just multiple-choice questions. New test components included open-ended questions; evidence-based writing; and cross-curricular passages, questions that reference other topics students have learned in other classes.

“We made optional practice tools available to all the districts, so they had access to both formative and interim assessments that were entirely optional [that] they could use at the local level to have students practice interacting with the platform in a way that made sense instructionally prior to the end of year assessment,” Laux said.

Students who have a documented learning accommodation for testing on paper were still able to do so. The STAAR redesign also provided access for testers who need text-to-speech, braille and American Sign Language video instructions.

Tackling technology

Another stark difference with the redesign was the test being fully administered online. Laux said the Texas Legislature took steps to ensure the TEA and local school districts were fully set up for the transition, including requiring the agency to administer a feasibility study and provide grants in the interim to ensure they could provide technical support to districts that might struggle with online infrastructure.

“We felt pretty good going in, and we had over 8.1 million online assessments administered in the spring, including over 1.1 million students testing at the same time with no challenges,” Laux said.