, Port Arthur, Texas

June 27, 2012

STAAR test poor indicator of student proficiency

The Port Arthur News

— The results of the new statewide exam given to ninth graders show passing rates so high for geometry — 98 percent statewide — and so low for writing — 55 percent statewide — that the validity of the test in measuring “academic readiness” is open to question.

The passing rates in subjects ranging from liberal arts to math-sciences of local ninth graders varied as widely as they did statewide, with students in Mid-County districts chalking up 100 percent passing rates on the geometry test, with PAISD students passing at a 96 percent clip, all of which seem to be superior performances — unless the validity of the test is questioned. Similarly, with writing, PN-G students passed at a 60 percent rate, NISD’s at 63 percent and PAISD’s at 34 percent. The same students who are breezing through geometry tests at almost perfect passing rates apparently can’t compose a sentence, if this test is to be believed.

Of course the test isn’t to be believed because of what is called “cut scores.” Students who answered 37 percent of the questions correctly on the algebra test this year passed the test. The cut rate was set so low to keep too many students from failing the test. Scoring the test is supposed to become more rigorous each year, with more correct answers required each year to “pass” the test.

Texas needs a good measure of student performance to hold districts accountable, but the new State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness may not have been quite ready for its rollout. Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, whose last day in office will be July 2, earlier this year, said the state's school accountability system had become a "perversion" of what the Legislature had intended, the Austin Armican-Statesman reported on May 1. Scott was concerned that student performance on the test has become the primary measure of success for schools and their leaders, and many say that has led to an overemphasis on the test.

NISD Superintendent Robert Madding said educators in his district work hard to prepare students for the test, although they don’t “teach to the test.” But as districts and teachers come under pressure to increase scores the temptation to train students to pass a test rather than teaching the essential elements of subjects will be overwhelming, even if the test they are teaching is flawed.

It is important for districts — and parents — to know how successful they are in educating their students. Artificially “cutting” the number of correct answers needed to pass an exit test may give the districts, and those parents, the wrong idea about how their ninth graders are doing. Many will not realize that to pass the Algebra test their student only had to get 37 percent of the questions correct.

 The new STAAR test fails the students of Texas because it does not tell the true story about their proficiency in the subjects tested. When they are planning funding for education in the next budget cycle, Texas legislators need to consider why the testing standard had to be set so low.