High school students taking the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course exams have had a lighter load this year as the Texas Legislature implemented changes reducing the number of tests that will be administered.
The reduction in the number of tests is a move local administrators said will lessen the burden on teachers and students and put the emphasis back on subject matter mastery rather than test preparation.
"Anytime you reduce the number of standardized tests, you take some weight off of teachers and administrators," said Dr. Allison Matney, director of research assessment and accountability at Katy ISD. "Teachers still have to maintain the Texas Essential Knowledge Skills standards but in many cases don't have a test looming at the end."
The 83rd Texas Legislature passed House Bill 5, which mandated that high school students pass five STAAR end-of-course exams to meet the new graduation requirements, said State Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy. The five assessments under HB 5 are Algebra I, English I, English II, biology and U.S. history, he said.
HB 5 also eliminated the 15 percent grading requirement, which stipulated that a student's score on the STAAR end-of-course exams would have counted for 15 percent of the student's final grade in each tested subject area. The STAAR end-of-course cumulative score component was also eliminated, Callegari said.
"Time was being wasted on testing, teaching to the test, and not being able to do anything else while the tests were being taken," Callegari said. "This new system is not perfect, but it is much better and is a step in the right direction."
Standards and success
The STAAR exams determine, at the lower grade levels, whether students are prepared to advance to the next grade level, Callegari said. At the high school level, the end-of-course exams are used to determine if the student is adequately prepared for post-secondary education or entry into the workforce, he said.
The impetus for the change in the number of end of course exams stemmed from several parent groups concerned about the burden 15 tests would place on their students, Matney said. The groups argued that standardized tests were not the only relevant measure of a student's knowledge.
"You have to examine the entire educational system," Matney said. "There may not be an end-of-course exam, but the students still have to take—and successfully complete—the courses."
Advocates for fewer tests argued that such assessments were a form of double jeopardy. Testing proponents held that the greater number of tests acted as a safeguard for academic rigor. Actual graduation requirements, aside from the number of tests, remain largely the same, Matney said.
Removing some of the STAAR tests is merely a way of making sure the tail is not wagging the educational dog, she said.
Efforts to change the testing structure were also indicative of a broader move in HB 5 to build a wider set of graduation options, Callegari said.
"We wanted to open the door for opportunities for students to specialize a little in arts or sciences, and open up additional options for vocational training," he said. "We need to teach them a skill that will let them get a job when they need to."
One key debate during the legislative negotiations was which tests to get rid and which to keep, Matney said. Some groups, such as the Texas Association of Business, wanted increased rigor, including keeping the Algebra II end-of-course exam, she said.
"They are hiring our graduates and are very concerned about a watering-down effect," Matney said.
If additional changes to the subjects of the tests are made in the future, it may be a revival of this debate, she said.
Katy ISD had not yet gotten to the implementation of all 15 tests. The initial legislation mandating the tests occurred just a few years ago with HB 3, and the new accountability practices began rolling out in 2011, Matney said. That meant the first round of students who were due to take all 15 tests, as they were phased in, are now only juniors.
"We never really had a group of kids feeling the weight of 15 tests," Matney said.
The changes, however, are positive, if a bit challenging to keep adapting to, she said.
"There's a lot of whiplash moving back and forth, but not many of us were looking forward to administering all 15," she said.
To help Katy ISD teachers adapt to the changing standards, the district is looking to expand its Instructional Coach model. That approach, which the district has been using for about four years, means that teachers on every campus get a visit from coaches three times a month to help them reconcile the tests with the broader state standards for the curriculum—the TEKS.
The coaches help teachers translate the testing material into the classroom, Matney said. Informal feedback from that program suggests it is working, she said.
At this early point in the implementation of the STAAR test, however, administrators are still evaluating the test and the initial rounds of results, Matney said.
"The first year we gave our test, we had no accountability system—we didn't know what was good," she said. "The 2013 round allowed us to really have an accountability system to know what the results mean."
Officials will compare this year's results to the 2013 data. Those results should be released in July or August, she said.
Overall, however, the changes from HB 5 will help streamline the whole process, she said.
"You never want the test to drive the instruction," Matney said. "This is really about supporting our teachers and campus leaders with the tools they need to embrace the rigor of the assessment. It's about building support systems for the students when they have the pencil in their hands."