The latest incarnation of the standardized test in Texas has no proven college-readiness benefits yet places a burden on students and teachers, educators and students say.
The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, is in its third year at schools statewide. The goal for STAAR is to test problem-solving and complex thinking skills, as well as test knowledge of the range of content presented in the course guidelines. The test is also designed to assess the application of content and skills in unfamiliar contexts.
“STAAR is a more rigorous testing program,” according to the Texas Education Agency website. “It emphasizes ‘readiness’ standards, which are the knowledge and skills that are considered most important for success in the grade or course subject that follows and for college and career.”
Students and educators disagree. They say it hampers students’ development of critical thinking and writing ability.
“The test itself is a dirty little inconvenience; it takes time away from teaching and puts a lot of focus on a test that doesn’t transfer to usable knowledge in the real world,” said Deborah Davis, chairwoman of the department of curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. “We are looking at a very scary time in education.”
STAAR places emphasis on memorization, leaving students ill-equipped for college, Davis said.
Since the inception of the state’s standardized testing program in 1980, the tests have increased in difficulty and length, and decreased in the amount of time allotted.
The STAAR program was implemented statewide in 2012, and was meant to replace the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, program — the previous standardized tests used by students.
STAAR increased the exit-level test load for high school students. The TAKS program required only four, exit-level tests for high school graduation, while the STAAR program requires students to pass five exit-level tests, in addition to regular course work and final exams.
Failure to pass those end-of-course exams can keep a student from graduating and may hurt a student’s chance for college admission since the tests account for 15 percent of a student’s final grade in courses such as English and algebra.
STAAR may negatively impact a student’s GPA and class ranking — two critical factors in college admissions.
Students — both those still in public school and those who have recently graduated from high school — said standardized tests place more of a focus on passing the end-of-course tests than on making sure students retain the knowledge and skills they are taught.
“I’ve always hated the TAKS and STAAR tests,” said recent Lampasas High School graduate Mackenna Mighell. “I always did well on them, but I feel it was stupid making us do pointless tests in order to move on to the next grade. It was a complete waste of time, and they did it a lot.”
After graduating from high school and attending several college courses, Mighell said she felt the standardized tests did not help to prepare her for the way her professors taught or tested.
“Tests in college felt a lot simpler to me, but that may be because of the courses I took in high school. I was taking pre-AP and AP courses all through high school and middle school,” Mighell said. “The (standardized) tests didn’t help at all. My teachers basically coached us for the tests just so we could get it done. Because of AP courses, I knew how to prepare myself for college expectations, and I knew what I would be having to deal with. My first semester, I had a 3.0 GPA and had straight A’s because the study habits I developed during AP courses helped me a lot during college.”
Students also expressed concern about the added pressure associated with the STAAR test in comparison to the previous TAKS test.
“The TAKS was more student friendly in that it wasn’t as complicated or challenging,” said recent Lampasas High School graduate Cory Bywater. “It didn’t make it where the classes had to be crammed. With the STAAR, you had to learn a lot more in the short time we are already given. It’s more stressful on the students that way.”
The current tests are administered under a strict, four-hour time limit, similar to the way students take the SAT exam. This strict testing schedule can often add pressure to a testing student, which can lead to mistakes.
The stress of the new test canceled the benefit of learning more information, Bywater said.
“More kids failed the STAAR then the TAKS,” Bywater said. “It wasn’t much harder — (you) just had a lot more information they want you to retain.”
Belton, Copperas Cove and Killeen independent school districts said they cannot count how much time is spent preparing students for the STAAR exam as the test is designed to measure a student’s understanding of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which is the base for all public school curriculum.
The STAAR exam is one of many measures, school districts said, to gauge a student’s performance and determine what instructional improvements need to be made.
“Standardized testing is only one measure of our students’ success,” said Susan Kincannon, superintendent of Belton ISD. “It captures how they performed on one test, on one day. There are so many other dimensions of success.”
“There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a standardized test,” said Kyle DeBeer, Belton ISD spokesman. “The problem is with an overdependence on standardized testing. Yes, our students are performing well on the STAAR test, but they’re also succeeding in other ways that a standardized test can’t measure.”
Killeen Educators Association President Richard Beaule speaks for more than 350 public school employees. He said standardized testing is an issue that needs additional attention.
“Standardized testing has been around for decades, but the application of so-called accountability measures, such as merit pay and performance ratings for teachers, causes deep harm to both educators and the children they are forced to test,” Beaule said.
STAAR testing may hinder some students from achieving college success, said Clay Robison, Texas State Teachers Association spokesman, while other students may be unfazed by the testing. He pointed to time spent preparing for the test.
"The more time the teachers spend doing that, the less time they spend teaching kids critical thinking skills — how to figure things out critically,” he said. “That’s very important for any young person going into college, because college is much more than learning how to take a test.”
Generally, Texas State Teachers Association teachers feel there is too much standardized testing, he said, and they feel pressure if their campus doesn’t score well on the tests.
With more than 20 years of teaching under her belt, Davis has seen the effects of increased standardized testing first hand over the years.
“When so much pressure is placed on teachers to focus on one test, it develops an atmosphere of teaching out of fear of not meeting the mark,” Davis said. “That’s incredibly crippling.”
As teachers are forced to devote more time to standardized testing preparation, she said, students are losing out on the basic skills necessary to succeed in life and learning. One of those skills is writing. One of the largest complaints she hears from college educators is that students do not know how to write anymore.
“We used to focus on those basics in elementary grades. We focused on written and oral communication, and we spent time teaching how to be proficient,” she said. “When you take that and turn it into test prep, the result of that will be students who have difficulty writing at the college level.”
College-level entrance exams, such as the SAT and ACT, claim to assess a student’s critical thinking skills — skills that some educators said are absent from the new standardized testing methods in Texas.
“I don’t care how hard you make a test, if you can choose one out of four answers you are not using critical thought,” she said about STAAR and TAKS. “Critical thought comes in when you have to justify an answer or your path of getting somewhere. Our schools don’t have time for that kind of thinking anymore.”
Public educators said their hands are tied. They have to follow the rules and administer the STAAR exam. However, parents have a right to opt out their child from STAAR testing as needed. Last year, three students opted out of Killeen ISD’s STAAR testing.
Parental reasons varied, from their parental right to exempt their student to test results being used unfairly to penalize teachers and schools, according to Killeen ISD district officials.
“If your child would be emotionally harmed by this test — which I think a lot of them really are — I think parents have the God-given right to do what is best for their children,” said Deborah Davis, chairwoman of the department of curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. “I can’t say the test is wrong for every child, but I can tell you it’s not right for every child.”
STAAR by the numbers
- $280 million: The amount of money to be paid over four years to Educational Testing Service to coordinate, develop, administer, and score the STAAR test statewide.
- $60 million: The amount of money to be paid over four years to Pearson to coordinate, develop, administer and score alternative tests for students with learning disabilities and for Spanish-speaking tests statewide.