Texas lawmakers criticized the state's new standardized test on Tuesday, but also acknowledged that growing pains are common every time a new statewide testing system is put into place.
Lawmakers on the Public Education Committee were alarmed that so many of the first ninth graders to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test this year performed poorly.
They branded many aspects of the implementation of the new test sloppy. They also wondered aloud if students who fail to pass STAAR tests early in high school would have enough time to catch up and pass subsequent tests before they get so far behind that they simply drop out.
Committee members heard testimony from superintendents who urged scrapping rules requiring that STAAR's results count toward 15 percent of the final grades of high school freshman. The committee also was told that districts are setting aside extra money to pay for additional summer school instruction since so many students aren't passing the new tests during the regular school year.
STAAR is in the process of replacing a standardized test known as TAKS, which is used to measure academic accountability among students, teachers and school districts. It was designed to be more demanding -- but final standards are being adopted gradually over the next four years to ensure the test is implemented smoothly.
Figures released June 8 by the Texas Education Agency show that if the final STAAR standards were already in place, more than half of Texas high school freshmen would have failed in five key areas. When ninth-graders' scores were judged against final standards, the biology passing rate was 41 percent and the algebra 1 passing rate was 39 percent.
In English, it would have been 34 percent for writing and 46 percent for reading. In world geography, it would have been 40 percent. By comparison, 70 percent of ninth grade students taking the last version of the TAKS math passed -- though the TAKS test placed less emphasis on algebra.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat who is retiring from the Legislature, noted that STAAR has now been made so difficult that answering fewer than 40 percent of the questions correctly is passing.
He asked: "With such a low percentage, should we look you square in the eye and say `you've passed algebra 1'?" The Texas Education Agency points out that there are always early hurdles when implementing new standardized tests, and that STAAR is the latest in a series of attempts to create a better statewide system for measuring accountability -- a point the committee seemed willing to concede.
Further hampering STAAR, though, are requirements that the tests be given with several weeks remaining in the school year so that there is enough time to determine the results.
Doing so has prompted complaints from teachers that there's not adequate time to prepare students for exams that cover an entire year's worth of material.
Another controversial aspect of STAAR has been the rule that tests in key subjects count toward 15 percent of ninth graders' final grades. The provision was designed to ensure students take the test seriously -- but sparked outcry from many who said it could hurt students' grade-point averages.
Texas suspended the rule for this school year, but the test is set to count toward final grades beginning in 2012-2013. However, the superintendent of the Amarillo school district, Rod Schroder, prompted applause inside the hearing room Tuesday when he suggested doing away with the requirement altogether.
Hochberg quipped, "you're preaching to the choir" and the committee indeed appeared receptive to the idea -- except Rep. Mark Strama. The Austin Democrat countered that STAAR results should count for 15 percent of students' final grades, and thus eliminate the need for teachers to spend time administering a separate final exam. "I know there are a lot of parents who think that the 15-percent rule is raising the stakes of testing and I think that that's a misapprehension," he said. "What it does is it makes this test replace a day of testing, not a day of instruction."