The Truth About Standardized Testing In Texas

With the implementation of the new STAAR testing system in Texas, there has been an outcry from some parents, educators, and commentators that the state places too much emphasis on standardized testing. They claim that students and educators spend too much time on state testing, the stakes for the tests are too high, and the local districts—not the state—should have complete control over the ways students are tested and graded. In fact, the Texas Association of School Administrators is asking its member districts to sign a resolution asking the Texas Legislature to roll back key components of the current assessment and accountability systems. This would be a grave error and would be a disservice to our students.

With the passage of SB 1031 in 2007 and HB 3 in 2009, the State of Texas has taken dramatic steps to improve the public education system by adopting a system designed to promote postsecondary readiness for students. SB 1031 introduced the STAAR exams in grades 3-8 and replaced the single high school exit exam with a series of end-of-course (EOC) exams that students will take as they complete core high school courses. Lawmakers believed that instituting EOC exams would be beneficial for several reasons:

  1. Students would be assessed on material they covered during the year instead of being assessed on material they covered three years prior;
  2. Since students would take individual exams for each subject, the assessments can be more comprehensive and better indicate a student’s mastery of the subject matter;
  3. Since students would be assessed on “fresh” material that they had recently covered, the need for multiple practice tests or “drill and kill” could be avoided; and
  4. Since they will cover core course material and the state’s essential knowledge and skills, the assessments could serve as final exams—which would further reduce testing time.

The accountability system was further enhanced with the passage of HB 3 in 2009. Most significantly, this bill establishes postsecondary readiness for each student as the organizing principle of the public education system. Postsecondary readiness means students have the knowledge and skills to successfully complete freshman-level work in college or community college, earn industry certifications or state licenses, qualify for advanced military service, or complete other types on job training to prepare them for the high-performance workplace. To ensure that students are on pace to graduate at this standard, the STAAR and EOC exams, the state academic standards (the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS), have been aligned so that educators, students, and parents know if a student is making acceptable progress from grade to grade. Students who are behind can immediately receive the help they need to get back on track and students who meet or exceed expectations will be monitored to ensure that they continue to excel.

So why is there a backlash against this system? Let’s look at list of concerns mentioned above and compare them to the facts:

1. Students and educators spend too much time on state testing
The state requires that students in grades 3-8 be tested once a year in selected core courses. Students in grade 3 take two exams, students in grades 4-7 take three exams, and students in grade 8 take four exams. High school students will typically take up to five EOC exams per year. Therefore, the state requires that students take no more than five exams a year. Since each exam is limited to four hours, the state requirements translate into no more than 20 hours of testing a year—which accounts for less than 3 of the 180 instructional days or about 1.4% of the school year.

However, many schools and districts opt to administer other types of benchmark testing. Some districts use high-quality diagnostic tests to help gauge student progress. However, other districts use benchmark tests obtained from the state’s Education Service Centers or other sources that are designed purely as practice tests for the state tests. The state requires none of these tests and their use or overuse is purely a local decision. Those concerned about overreliance on standardized testing and the resulting loss of instructional time should first examine the policies of their local school districts before blaming the state assessment system.

2. The stakes for the test are too high
In order for an accountability system to succeed, there must be incentives for districts, schools, teachers, and students to meet standards. Without consequences, how do we improve schools that continually fail and produce students that are unprepared for higher education or job training? Such schools must be improved, reorganized, or closed. Conversely, districts and schools that continue to meet high standards should be acknowledged and freed from many state regulations.

SB 1031 also requires that a student’s results on the EOC exams count 15% of the course grade. This requirement was waived for the 2011-12 school year, as many felt this put too much pressure on students. But how is a state-developed exam that covers state-adopted standards and counts 15% of a course grade any different from a locally-developed exam that counts the same amount? Are these tests more stressful that a college final exam, industry certification exam, job interview, or other high stakes situations our students will face in their lives? The stakes for the tests aren’t too high, but the stakes for failing to prepare our students for the real world are.

3. Local districts—not the state—should control testing and grading
Some critics of the system feel that state assessments are unnecessary because our local educators can design tests to cover course material. However, without state testing, there is no way to ensure that students are learning the TEKS at each grade level.

Through the adoption of the TEKS, the state sets academic expectations for our students that culminate in postsecondary readiness. Through the STAAR and EOC exams, the state measures how effectively students meet those expectations. Beyond those requirements, local educators have tremendous freedom in designing curricula, selecting instructional materials, developing assessments, and adopting grading policies. Even with the requirement that the EOC exam counts as 15% of the course grade, each school and district still controls 85% of the grading policies in high school and 100% of the grading policies in elementary and middle schools.

Parents have the right to know how well their children are performing compared to their peers across the state. In addition, the businesses and other taxpayers that support our public school system through property taxes have the right to know that the system they fund is producing the promised results. Expecting our students to spend 8 to 20 hours per year demonstrating their academic progress on state standards is not unreasonable—it is sound public policy.