Sunday, March 25, 2012

Students taking the new, more rigorous STAAR exams Monday

The first of many articles I'm sure we'll see as we near D-day.


By Melissa B. Taboada and Laura Heinauer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, March 25, 2012

Monday will be the first time students take the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness which by all accounts are tougher and harder to fake your way through than the old achievement tests.

A requirement that fifth- and eighth-grade students pass the exams to be promoted to the next grade is being waived this year.

Those students, as well as fourth- and seventh-graders, will take the STAAR later this week.

High-schoolers will have to pass the tests — in subjects including English, algebra and U.S. history — to graduate, but the STAAR is being phased in. Only ninth-graders in English I classes will tackle the new writing test today.

Upperclassmen will continue taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
Those who have seen or helped craft the new exam say there is a lot of similarity between the STAAR high school so-called end-of-course exam and college entrance exams.

"We put higher stakes for these tests," said Round Rock Superintendent Jesús Chávez, who was selected to be part of the accountability policy that made recommendations on the rules and standards of the STAAR.

"There's no question that these tests are more rigorous," Chávez said. "They have been related to college testing. Part of it is the requirement that the test indicate whether students are college-ready or not."

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe agreed that the STAAR is harder, with fewer multiple choice questions and two types of essays on the writing tests. Also, the
STAAR, unlike the TAKS, will be timed.

Chávez and Ratcliffe said the high school tests are similar in rigor and style to college exams.

"We think that the way it's written, it's going to be much harder to teach to the test," Ratcliffe said, comparing the STAAR to Advanced Placement exams, which students can take for credit for college courses. "They really need to teach the curriculum. I just don't think that the drill-and-kill methods will be effective."

The education agency has not set what scores will be needed to pass each of the tests.

Elementary and middle school students were previously required to pass the TAKS to be promoted, so the STAAR deferral should ease anxiety, state officials said.
"If anything, the pressure should be less this year at those grade levels," Ratcliffe said.

"Really, they're essentially taking it for a test drive."

For the most part, test results will be categorized as unsatisfactory (failing), satisfactory and advanced.

Overall performance on the high school exams will be considered, so a student could fail one or more of the 12 high school-level STAAR exams and do well enough on the others to graduate, Ratcliffe said.

The number of correct questions needed to earn satisfactory and advanced marks on high school tests probably won't be available before April, state officials said last week. STAAR 
scores could also indicate whether students need to take remedial courses in college.
As is the case now, students will have several opportunities to retest, Ratcliffe said.
Also, the state education commissioner has decided that — for now — districts may defer implementation of a requirement to include the STAAR as part of a high school student's grade. The grading requirement, another difference from the TAKS, will be enforced in the 2012-13 school year.

As of Friday, about 487 of the state's 1,215 districts or charter schools had requested waivers. Districts have until May 1 to request a waiver.

One example of the new rigor of the state's achievement exam is that seventh-graders, for the first time, must write both narrative and expository — or explanatory — essays. The TAKS did not test expository writing.

Another difference: The TAKS would simply ask students to correct a mistake — insert a missing comma in the correct place in a sentence, for example. The STAAR requires students to correctly revise whole sentences.

Amy Margulies is language arts department chairwoman and a teacher at Deerpark Middle School in the Round Rock school district.

To prepare her students for the exams, she has spent weeks in writing sessions in which students read their essays aloud, and their peers and teacher provide constructive feedback.

Before spring break, additional teachers also stood in as literacy coaches and worked one-on-one with students.

Ana Garcia, a Deerpark seventh-grader, was among those preparing for the exam last week.
"I'm nervous about the test, because we've never taken it before, and it's going to follow us all the way to high school," Garcia, 12, said. "But I think I'm ready for it."

Thane Flores, 13, also a seventh-grader at Deerpark, echoed Garcia's sentiment.
"I'm nervous because it's a new test and it's timed, but I know I'll be ready for it," he said. "I know what a good story is and what's a really great story. A good story is you have what you need in the story and you know what to write about. A really great story is going outside the box and doing it better, using more experiences or phrases people said."
Margulies said she hasn't seen the new test but is excited about the increased difficulty.
Her students "are so ready for this that they should not be worried at all, and they should show what they know," Margulies said. "I'm pleased that the State of Texas believes in our kids that much. I know they can do it."

School district leaders throughout Central Texas said confident students often score better. To relieve some anxiety, the Leander district is among several that have made dozens of presentations to parents, students and teachers about the new exam.

Debbie Sommers, Leander's director of assessment and accountability, said students there have been most concerned about the new four-hour time limit. Sommers said the vast majority of students finished the TAKS exams well before four hours.

Some school districts are concerned that because the STAAR tests students by subject instead of by grade level, as the TAKS did, the number of students scoring at commended levels will drop.

With the old system, an eighth-grader taking a high school math course would still take the eighth-grade exam.

With the STAAR, eighth-graders taking algebra courses will take the algebra test.
"It could very well have an effect on our upper end," Sommers said.

"When the general public starts looking at the results, they may not understand that. But I think it's the right thing to do, and I'm excited to see what that group of kids does.

"If we teach the knowledge and skills at the level we're supposed to be teaching, they're going to be fine," she said.

Contact Melissa B. Taboada at 445-3620; contact Laura Heinauer at 445-3694.

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