According to a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report, 71 percent of Texas public school fourth graders were not proficient in reading in 2017. The state’s own standardized tests, known as STAAR, reflect similar results, and in 2018 found that 58 percent of Texas third-graders were reading below grade level.
The final version of school finance reform legislation (HB 3) which unanimously passed both the House and Senate, has several surviving measures targeting early literacy, including funding for full-day prekindergarten and increased funding for low-income students, English language learners, and dyslexia intervention. School districts will also be required to adopt and post early childhood literacy and mathematics plans and goals, and to review progress annually in a public meeting.
But while the final version of HB 3 offers additional money for districts to create teacher merit-pay and incentive programs, lawmakers backed away from tying such programs to STAAR test results. Instead, the bill specifically states that districts “may not” use STAAR to evaluate teacher performance, but requires new incentive programs to be approved by the education commissioner and monitored by Texas Tech University.
One of three measures used to determine ratings in the state’s recently implemented A-F system, the STAAR test has come under intense scrutiny, and some school districts and lobby groups have asked Texas legislators to curtail use of the tests and suspend the district and school rating program.
Government lobby groups including the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) as well as the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) both advocated for eliminating standardized tests, except for those required by federal law in fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union also specifically testified against tying merit and incentive funding to test scores.
In response to STAAR concerns, Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) introduced legislation (HB 4242) calling for restrictions on test questions and a new study on the readability of passages used. Depending on the outcome of the study, Bernal proposed suspending the state’s accountability system for districts and schools in light of concern about the appropriateness of STAAR and confusion in interpreting test results.
“A lot of people hate the STAAR but that’s not my message or my point,” Bernal stated. “I want there to be faith and confidence in the instrument.”
During testimony in April, legislators sought clarification of terms and statistics used in describing STAAR results. Texas Education Agency (TEA) representative Monica Martinez explained that a student may earn a “passing” score on the STAAR, even though the student is only “approaching grade level,” not “on grade level.”
Some confusion also stemmed from the STAAR Report Card, which was introduced two years ago to help parents understand results. The reports provide detailed score information and access to test questions, as well as online improvement tools. In recognition of the correlation between student reading and academic achievement, the report cards also offer a reading “lexile” number for parents to use in selecting appropriate books for summer reading. But many parents misconstrued the lexile numbers as an alternate test performance score.
Other witnesses at the Public Education committee hearing, including University of Houston professor of literacy Diane Marshall, pointed to studies claiming that STAAR reading passages were too difficult for the targeted grades. A 2012 Texas A & M-Commerce study based on the first version of STAAR, and a second Mary Hardin-Baylor University study examining 2013-2015 tests for grades 3-5 allege some reading selections were above grade level.
But the Texas Education Agency stands by STAAR tests as appropriate for Texas students, and STAAR reading scores are actually higher than those derived from the NAEP tests. According to TEA documentation, while STAAR exams are more rigorous than the previously used TAKS assessments, they are directly correlative to the standards set by the State Board of Education for each grade level. TEA says that teachers for each grade assist in crafting questions, which are then field tested in-state. TEA also posts all past STAAR tests, correct answers, and explanations on the agency website.
While Bernal’s bill did not receive a hearing in the Senate, the final version of HB 3 does mandate a study of STAAR tests for grade level appropriateness. The study must be conducted by a public university and reported to the legislature no later than December 1, 2019.
Currently, STAAR tests are only required in grades 3-8, (and as end-of-course exams for high school grades,) but schools must also conduct reading assessments beginning in kindergarten. HB 3 calls for use of reading development diagnostics in pre-K through second grade, and specifies that schools use phonics curriculum and systematic direct instruction in kindergarten through third grade.
State standardized testing and the A-F rating system remain in place for district and charter schools for now, although separate legislation (HB 3906) has also been sent to the Governor that will allow for some adjustments to STAAR content and administration.
The TEA will release individual A-F campus ratings beginning in August 2019.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.