Public education is a central topic in the 2023 Texas Legislative session, and education advocacy organization Raise Your Hand Texas hopes to see changes to how the state’s Assessment and Accountability system measures academic success.

The current A-F rating system in Texas uses STAAR scores as the only factor in determining a quality school at the elementary and middle school level. However, the 2022 Charles Butt Foundation Texas Education Poll found that 56% of Texans are not confident in the STAAR test and that 83% of Texans believe the Texas Education Agency should not base its A-F letter grades for public schools entirely on STAAR test scores.

Raise Your Hand Texas Senior Director of Advocacy Libby Cohen said the dependency on limited-perspective standardized testing for schools’ public-facing letter grades does a disservice to teachers, students, public schools, and communities.

“We think that a more well-rounded set of indicators will give us that richer picture of whether or not schools and districts are really paying attention to all the different levers that they can be pushing to help give students a solid foundation for success in academics and career,” Cohen said.

Advocating for change

In North East ISD, State Compensatory Education Tutor Sarah Ashmore has two children in elementary school and one at the middle school level.

“It’s a problem for all students, not just those who struggle,” she said. “My own kids are on the higher end of the spectrum as far as ability, and have test-taking skills with, luckily, no testing anxiety – and they still are so tired of testing and practice tests,” she said.

Cohen said elementary and middle school campuses in Texas are in acute need of accountability system reform because 100% of the school’s letter grade is based on STAAR testing in those grade levels.

Additionally, these standardized tests cannot account for extracurricular and co-curricular involvement which are vital to long-term academic success, according to the Raise Your Hand Texas Measure What Matters Report.

Ashmore said there are more effective tests available to measure students’ academic growth and understanding, including district curriculum benchmarks and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing.

The MAP test is an individualized test created by the research-based non-profit NWEA. The test adapts to students’ knowledge level and gets harder the further the student progresses.

Ashmore said MAP testing is also beneficial for teachers because it provides instantaneous, detailed feedback on how students are performing and can even factor in content beyond a student’s grade level.

In her role as a tutor, Ashmore pulls students out of class focusing on both lower-level students who need to fill in the gaps as well as higher-level students who will work on accelerated learning.

For students who have mandatory tutoring due to HB 4545 from the 2021 legislative session, Ashmore said it can actually put them at a disadvantage to miss so much time in the classroom. She continues to say that tutoring may raise their STAAR scores, but at what cost to other important learned concepts and skills.

The enacted legislation requires students who did not pass the STAAR test to complete 30 hours of additional tutoring outside their normal classroom schedule. For students who did not pass the STAAR test in two categories, such as reading and math, students would need to meet the required 30 hours for each subject.

“There is a cost-benefit analysis you have to do to balance missing regular classroom instruction,” she said. “I don’t think [pulling students out of class] too often is helpful because they will be missing so much regular classroom instruction that they'll be stuck in a cycle of perpetually being behind. It’s gotten to a point where it may be more harmful than helpful.”

Local reform

Schools throughout Texas have been managing the effects of HB 4545 on students and teachers, and at NEISD TexHill Middle School, school staff restructured the learning day to allow students with these mandatory tutoring requirements to still have one elective class.

“When they added HB 4545 to math, reading, social studies, and science, it created so many more opportunities for students to have to go to tutoring blocks,” Ashmore said. “If they hadn’t restructured the day, students would have their core classes, P.E., and then just tutoring.”

Ashmore said this not only puts a strain on students, but on schools’ faculty to have to teach more classes with less prep time when staff is already spread thin.

In addition, Ashmore said students could struggle with the online format of the STAAR test even though the many elementary and middle schools had early buy-in.

The STAAR format changed again for the 2022-23 school year, and students taking the test during the spring 2023 testing window will be the first to experience the redesigned assessment.

Ashmore said the redesign changed questions to be open-ended and short-answer, and that teachers are worried for their students.

“That challenge—combined with the fact that these 3rd graders were the first set of students affected by COVID-19 and online instruction during their kindergarten year—it’s the conflagration of factors they’re really worried about,” she said.

In an effort to help students, NEISD includes a “What I Need” period of the day where students are grouped into different levels for math and reading at some NEISD schools.

Ashmore said data on students’ progress needs to be available more than once a year so these groupings can be changed and allow students to move based on educational needs.

In addition, basing a school’s public-facing letter grade off a single test day affects the entire community around the school, Ashmore said.

“As a parent and public school advocate, it’s the first question we are asked by other parents: ‘Why is this school a B or a C? Should we buy a house in this neighborhood?’ Whereas if parents saw an A, they might be more comfortable with the way a school looks,” she said. “Even though [the A does not reflect] the feeling of school or how the teachers are, it doesn’t show extracurriculars or the school’s connection with the community.”

Ashmore said these high-stakes tests have the potential for huge consequences for students, teachers, and schools, and that teachers are reaching a breaking point.

“I see teachers every day doing their very best to traverse the regulations, requirements, and expectations from the state, district, administration, parents, and students. They are amazing. I am very proud of them, my kids and my tutoring students, as well as all the students who work so hard to succeed every day,” Ashmore said.

Raise Your Hand Texas’ policy recommendations

Raise Your Hand Texas believes the accountability system for public schools should accurately measure student progress, and to do that, Texas’ assessment and accountability system needs to establish a middle ground.

What does this mean for local schools? The organization reported that the most effective assessments are low-stakes, identify strengths and weaknesses, and inform instruction throughout the school year.

Raise Your Hand Texas supports real-time assessments that inform instruction, measure individual progress, and serve as one of multiple measures reflecting a student’s entire educational experience, rather than depending on the single high-stakes STAAR test.

The organization’s overall goal is to find a way to more effectively measure students’ academic success without the sole dependency on a high-pressure test.

Raise Your Hand Texas’ Policy Recommendations include:
  • Removing all high-stakes testing consequences for students.
  • Limiting STAAR test scores to 50% of any domain or the overall score for districts and schools in the state’s accountability ratings system.
  • Expanding the scope of Texas’ A-F accountability ratings system to include factors beyond STAAR test scores.
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