Texas Lives Up to Moniker as Lone STARR State

In March, the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) will replace the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test, which Texan students have taken annually since the implementation of No Child Left Behind. The STAAR test promises to have a higher degree of difficulty than the TAKS test and comes with more strings (some would say spurs) attached.

Several years ago, the State Legislature amended the Texas Education Code to require an end-of-course exam that will count as 15% of a student’s final grade in a course for the year. As a graduation requirement, most students must take and pass a total of 12 end-of-course exams in four core subjects: English, math, science and social studies. As 15% of a student’s grade for the year in a core subject, the STAAR test has the potential of drastically affecting a student’s GPA and class rank. A particularly important point in Texas, which guarantees public school students admittance to state colleges and universities based on class rank.

The new rule has students anxiety-ridden about taking the exams. It has parents outraged about how it will affect their child’s college prospects. It also has school districts all across the state confused and scrambling as the legislation does not specify a formula for calculating end-of-course exam scores in student GPA’s or class rankings. One parents group in Austin considers filing a lawsuit to stop the district from administering the test. One member of the State Board of Education, Thomas Ratliff, said he would welcome such a lawsuit, but against the state. It’s a quagmire with no immediate remedy.

Austin Independent School District, along with several other districts, applied to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for a waiver of the rule in calculating GPA’s and class rank for the 2011-2012 school year. TEA rejected the Austin district’s request for a one-year waiver, but has since decided to give all school districts a one year reprieve in applying the STAAR score to student GPA’s. Other school districts in Texas have decided to try and avoid making the STAAR exam affect GPA’s and class rank altogether. The Eanes district has decided that the final grade appearing on a student’s high school transcript will reflect their performance on the test, but they will not use STAAR scores in calculation of GPA’s or class rank.

In late January, state lawmakers held a hearing on the issue. The Austin Independent School District held a public meeting a couple of days later. Dozens of educators, parents, community members and business representatives testified at the hearing. Hundreds spoke out at the public meeting.

The Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Association of Business adamantly supported the immediate administration of the test as part of student’s final grades in the four core subjects. They cited it as the only responsible path to accountability in public education. Several Superintendents expressed misgivings about such high-stakes testing dominating classroom curricula. A number of education consultants delineated the benefits of data-driven accountability and measurable outcomes. Various teachers complained about interrupting quality, hands-on, instructional time to “teach to the test.” Parents expressed complete frustration with the lack of art, music and physical education, displaced by testing drills and relentless repetition. Parents lamented the loss of experiential learning and critical thinking lessons, overrun by multiple choice, bubble tests and mindless regurgitation. Everyone felt justified. Nobody felt validated.

Then the words of the Education Commissioner of Texas, Robert Scott, speaking to the Texas State Board of Education about standardized testing, made the local, state and national news. Scott referred to the assessment and accountability regime as having grown from a cottage industry into the modern day “military-industrial complex.”

“I’ve been a proponent of standardized testing, for some things, and I want to continue to use it, for some things. But we have overemphasized it… It is not the end-all, be-all of the universe,” Scott proclaimed. “You’ve reached a point now of having this one big thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak.”

Robert Scott may not have intended it, but his words have fanned the flames of battling the onslaught of corporate education reform and data-driven accountability. The Coalition SAUS (Strengthen Austin Urban Schools), PAA’s Texas affiliate, currently works with Occupy Austin, campus PTA’s and various other community groups and education organizations to coordinate a “Less Testing, More Teaching” Rally on Friday, March 2, 2012. The rally will take place at the Texas State Capitol, at 3pm.

Following the rally, participants will march to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) carrying the message to end the incessant “accountability” testing and the wholesale transfer of public education funding to private profiteers. Texas taxpayers currently pay test publisher Pearson Educational Measurement $100 million a year on a five-year contract. We will march to the TEA carrying the message that we heard you, Robert Scott, and welcome your voice in speaking up against the testing madness and privatization.

Posted on by Lorie Barzano Posted in Uncategorized

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