Actually, There Are Plenty of Reasons to Keep the STAAR Tests

Texas requires those who are learning to drive to answer at least 70 percent of questions correctly on a written test. For the driving test itself, students can have no more than 30 points deducted. An aspiring motorist who meets the two conditions receives a license to drive.Why do test-takers have to answer at least 70 percent of the questions correctly? Why not 60 percent, or 50 percent? The answer is that the test has a particular difficulty level and the Texas Department of Public Safety believes that getting 70 percent correct reflects a level of knowledge that is adequate to receive a license.Not many people think tests are fun, but we all recognize they serve a purpose. Drivers need to know what a stop sign looks like, for example. So too with annual tests given in schools. Various commenters have argued that Texas's STAAR test is too hard, or that it is causing districts and schools to put too much stress on students and teachers.Tests are not too hard because students score poorly on them; they are too hard if their questions assume students learned material they could not have learned. Imagine if the driving test had a question about differential calculus. Testing professionals refer to this kind of mismatch of questions and material as the test not being aligned. An aligned test for, say, fifth graders will have questions that are based on what is taught in fifth grade, or at least what is supposed to be taught.There is plenty of evidence that the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness is aligned. The Texas Education Agency is required by statute to have an independent evaluator scrutinize its grade 3 to 8 testing program. The evaluator rated alignment using three or four reviewers for every question on the tests, and reported that "the content of the 2016 forms aligned with blueprints and the vast majority of items were aligned with the TEKS expectations."TEKS is Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the standards for what students should learn by grade and subject. Like most standards, TEKS are really dry and hard to get excited about, but they form the bedrock of what the STAAR is testing.TEA posts its tests on its web page after they are given, along with rationales for why various answers are correct or incorrect. Especially in third grade, using these tests for practice may be useful because third graders have not taken STAAR before. But can schools overdo practicing for the test? Sure. If your child is bringing home a STAAR practice test during the first week of school, something is amiss.This is not a criticism of the test. The instruction in the classroom is the issue.The stakes attached to scoring poorly on the STAAR may tempt a school or teacher to focus only on the test. But the tactic is flawed. It does not matter how often a student practices a STAAR if the student does not know how to read or do math.Should teachers be spending time with their students on creative activities outside the scope of the standards and the test? Yes, but it's easy to spot the slippery slope there.Creativity can begin to substitute for teaching what students need to learn. Great Texas teachers and principals creatively teach TEKS. A student does not learn writing via STAAR practice. Students learn to write via quality instruction aligned to standards.There are two paths to higher performance levels. On one path, the state lowers its cut-points, which more or less by definition means more students will be on grade level. But Texas educators (who were mostly teachers) set those cut-points, using a rigorous process. Lowering them is analogous to lowering a basketball hoop from ten feet to seven feet so that more students can dunk on it. There may be some short-term satisfaction in that, but eventually students will encounter the ten-foot hoop.On the other path, the state and its districts and schools can dig in, think more about curriculum, instruction, professional development of teachers and principals, and innovations and improvements emerging from research. It can accept the challenge and deal with it.Texas has a state-of-the-art testing program that is revealing important information about how its young people are doing in school. It is better to listen to the message than kill the messenger.Mark Dynarski is an education reform fellow with the George W. Bush Institute. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.   Continue reading...

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