Richardson ISD and Plano ISD officials are preparing teachers and students for a major revision to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness ahead of the spring testing window from April 18-May 9.

STAAR scores are one of several tools used by the Texas Education Agency as a way to measure student success and as a means to evaluate local school districts’ effectiveness.

However, parents are concerned the redesign does not address a major concern with STAAR, which is that it unfairly grades learning at a single testing moment, according to Lauren McDonough, an RISD parent who has children in second and fourth grade at Mohawk Elementary.

“Personally, I am not a fan of standardized testing in general,” McDonough said. “My oldest daughter struggles with anxiety and has been stressing about the STAAR test since first grade when a teacher mentioned it.”

One of the largest concerns from districts regarding the redesign has been the timing of its implementation.

RISD Superintendent Tabitha Branum said the district only began receiving initial information about the STAAR redesign heading into the 2022-23 school year.

According to Branum, the TEA would release additional information every four to six weeks about what the changes were going to look like. Each time information was released, the district’s curriculum team would begin preparing students for new assessments by outlining new question types. Branum spent the first semester of the school year making sure teachers were as prepared as possible for guiding students on the new test.

“Had we [received information] over a year ago, we would have been better prepared to better support our teachers and our students,” Branum said. “Let’s experience and learn from the test ... so we can be geared up and ready for next year.”

Despite this, PISD and RISD officials said they want to encourage parents that district teachers are helping students perform well under the redesigned test.

“We believe this redesign will increase the alignment between effective instructional practices and STAAR results,” PISD Chief Learning Officer Laurie Taylor said.

Preparing for the new test

Redesigning the STAAR is a result of House Bill 3906, which the State Legislature passed in 2019. TEA officials said the bill was designed to make sure the test is reflective of what students are learning.

Major changes include changing the types of questions, aligning text to better reflect curriculum and administering testing online.

The exams are a summative assessment that show whether a student mastered knowledge of a core subject at a certain grade level, according to the TEA. The tests are given to students in third through eighth grades and in high school in a variety of subjects.

One requirement of the STAAR redesign is a shift to online testing. However, Lily Laux, TEA deputy commissioner of school programs, said nearly 80% of districts already adopted online testing during the 2021-22 school year. Benefits of online testing include having earlier reported scores and alleviating the logistics required with paper tests, she said.

“Having access to the online accommodations has been very popular with districts,” she said.

In anticipation of the new rule changes, RISD and PISD began online STAAR administration over the last two years. Heading into this year’s testing period, Jacob Cortez, RISD executive director for accountability, said the district’s extra preparation time has enabled each RISD student to have a device for testing.

“Because this will be our third year doing online testing, most of the campuses know what they are doing to the point that it is really old hat,” Cortez said.

Taylor said PISD also has a device for each student.

Looking for a grace period

In addition to receiving last-minute information, Branum said the district has had no reassurances from the TEA about a potential grace period, which would alleviate any accountability burden if students have lower STAAR scores this year.

Texas provides annual academic accountability ratings to its public school districts and to charters in the state, according to TEA officials. The ratings are based on performance on state standardized tests; graduation rates; and college, career and military readiness outcomes. Districts or schools that record negative accountability scores over several years may face state-run interventions.

Normally, when there is a substantial change, such as the revisions to the STAAR, school districts are given a year to see how changes affect scores overall, Branum said.

“In my entire time in leadership, I’ve never had a year where [the TEA] changed the text and the accountability system and not given us some kind of grace or hold-harmless period,” she said.

Established by House Bill 22 in 2017, an updated version of the TEA’s A-F accountability system will be enacted for the first time this school year. This refresh is expected to focus on improving college readiness, which is a measure of how many high school graduates are prepared for post-high school educational opportunities by analyzing a variety of factors, including ACT and SAT scores as well as enrollment in dual credit courses. Previously, 60% of students were required to meet those readiness metrics to earn an A rating. The refresh will increase that level to 88% of students to earn an A.

On March 6, RISD and PISD officials signed a letter along with 250 other school districts and educational organizations asking the Texas Legislature to pause the planned refresh of the accountability system.

“Moving forward with the planned refresh is irresponsible, as it will cause significant confusion among the community, put increased pressure on teachers and other staff who are already at their breaking point, and wrest the policy decision of how we should hold our schools accountable away from the elected representatives,” the letter states.

Redesigning the test

One of the requirements of HB 3906 was that no more than 75% of points on a test can be based on multiple-choice questions. In previous years, nearly all questions were multiple choice, with only a few short-response sections in select tests.

TEA officials said fewer multiple-choice questions will better align with questions teachers ask in class.

“When you look at teachers’ experiences in the classrooms, there are multiple ways for students to demonstrate their learning,” Laux said.

Interactive questions include multipart answer prompts, drag-and-drop and graphing questions, according to Cortez. The test will also integrate writing by using constructed response questions.

“We want students discussing, writing and responding to texts in a variety of ways,” Taylor said. “These are instructional strategies that teachers use in their classrooms often.”