Thursday, October 27, 2011

New state test raises concerns for teachers, educators

Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011

When the new state achievement test rolls out this spring, students will notice several key changes from its predecessor.

Not only will the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness be tougher, have more questions and come with a time limit, but the end-of-course exam scores for high school students will count for 15 percent of their grade.

The old standardized test — the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — did not, and unanswered questions about the change have caused confusion among school district administrators and concern among parents worried about the effect on class rank.

Lawmakers approved the switch to the STAAR in 2007. However, the state was not explicit about how districts should convert test scores to grades.

Though the test is rolling out in high schools this year only with ninth-graders — upperclassmen will continue taking the TAKS until they graduate — it will affect the grade-point averages for those students, and thus class rankings.

Given that Texas guarantees automatic admission to college for most public school students ranked in the top 10 percent of their class, the stakes are high.

State law allows students to retake the test for any reason, said Gloria Zyskowski , division director for student assessment for the Texas Education Agency.

"And I suspect that students who pass the test, if they are going to retry to retake the test, it's to help their cumulative score," Zyskowski said.

But districts are not required to use the results of the retest to calculate a student's grade. Austin school district officials say only first-try scores will count toward GPAs. Christy Rome, director of intergovernmental relations and policy oversight, said the only exception is if students do not receive credit for the course, such as when their test score and course grade do not add up to passing. In those cases, students could retest for a higher score that would bring their grade up high enough to earn course credit.

Anderson High School's campus advisory council, which includes parents and educators, two weeks ago drafted a letter summarizing concerns about the end-of-course exams. The group wants the district to request a waiver from the state to prevent the inclusion of the scores in students' grade-point averages for the 2011-12 year.

"There are too many unknown factors with potentially far-reaching implications surrounding the test at this point in the academic year," the letter states. "The uncertainty is causing students and families a great deal of concern."

In addressing the school board Monday night, Anderson parent Susan Schultz said she was concerned about inconsistencies.

"While one school district may decide that all students who pass get 100 and all who fail get a 69, other school districts' conversion tables may get very intricate and include decimals," she said.

Educators also have said they are concerned about how the tests will be scored. Scoring methodology for secondary students won't be released until February. Students will start taking the exam with the English portion in March; other exams will be given in May.

"I do think (teachers) are very nervous about the new passing standards," said Criss Cloudt, Texas Education Agency associate commissioner over assessment and accountability. "It's certainly true that the assessment program is going to be a more rigorous program, but \u2026 keep in mind that the content is directly linked to the content the State of Texas requires to be taught."

The Texas Education Agency in September released some sample questions to provide teachers and administrators a better idea of what to expect on the test.

Students in third through eighth grades will also take the STAAR, but their scores won't count toward their grades and, for this year, won't count toward state ratings of campuses. The state will use the results from the spring exams to set passing standards, which will be determined in October 2012.

"If we are working on our curriculum and delivering our instruction in a meaningful way, then our kids will be prepared," said Diana Sustaita, director of curriculum and instruction with the Pflugerville school district.

"Our standards are still the same," she said. But she added, "There's a big difference from what kids were expected to know for TAKS and what they're expected to know for STAAR."

For example, on the TAKS, a student in Algebra I might have been quizzed about one specific part of a graph. The STAAR would ask a student which statement is not true about the graph, and that would require a student to know the various properties of the graph.

"We're all trying to be closely aligned with the state objectives, more aligned than we have in previous years," said Joy Killough, a biology and chemistry teacher at Westwood High School in the Round Rock district. "It's going to be a challenge for everybody because of the rigor, but I think the kids are up to it."; 445-3620

Comparing STAAR
and TAKS exams

What are the biggest differences between the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills?

The STAAR is a more rigorous exam that experts say will measure a greater range of student achievement — especially preparedness for moving on to the next grade — and establish stronger links to college readiness.

The STAAR will have more questions for most grades, subjects and courses.

Students will have four hours to take the STAAR. The TAKS was not timed.

The STAAR will count for 15 percent of a student's grade in a subject. TAKS scores did not affect course grades.

The STAAR will cover only the content from a particular course — the Algebra I exam will assess only Algebra I content, for example — rather than content from multiple courses. The ninth-grade mathematics TAKS tested students' knowledge of Algebra I and eighth-grade math.

STAAR reading and writing exams for certain grades will be administered over two days.

The test designs for STAAR fourth- and seventh-grade writing and English I, II and III will require students to write two essays addressing different skills. The TAKS required only one longer personal essay.

Most STAAR math and science questions will be open-ended, requiring students to arrive at answers independently without being influenced by answer choices provided with the questions.

Source: Texas Education Agency

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