Monday, March 26, 2012

Students, teachers cram for debut of STAAR testing

By Maria Luisa Cesar | San Antonio Express-News
Saturday, March 24, 2012

After months of anxiety and planning, students statewide will finally take a new test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, starting this week.

Teachers have been scrambling to prepare students for the STAAR, which is designed to replace, in phases, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, test.

Grades 3-9 will take the STAAR starting this week. High school sophomores, juniors and seniors will continue to take TAKS.

Plagued by concerns that last year's cuts to public school funding would hamper a smooth transition to the more rigorous test, administrators expect to see thousands of additional students sent to summer school based on “benchmark” tests, a dry run that showed high failure rates in many districts.

But some educators aren't allowing the benchmark tests — which some say were made purposefully harder than the actual STAAR test — to spook students. Across San Antonio, educators spent last week working to help students ward off pre-test jitters and hosting a series of pep rallies and practice sessions.

The test has even inspired a slew of YouTube videos, many of them parodying the movie Star Wars and some taking comical shots at the Texas Education Agency.

At El Dorado Elementary School, teachers created a music video called “We'll Pass the STAAR, We Know It,” overdubbing motivational lyrics to the pop song “Sexy and I Know It.” The video, featuring students rapping and a dance move that should be called the “pencil sharpen boogie,” is meant to calm nerves and instill confidence, said principal Susan Peery. Featuring North East Independent School District Superintendent Brian Gottardy, it's received thousands of hits online.

“The theme this year (is) ... you'll pass the STAAR, I know it,” Peery said. “We try to get that running through kids' heads and not that inner voice saying ‘I'm scared, I can't do it.' We try to minimize the stress and maximize the motivation and the confidence.”

Henry Steubing Elementary School principal Beverly Pantuso said students there have “buddied up” to send test-takers encouraging notes.

“It's not just third-, fourth- and fifth-graders taking the test. It's the whole school and we all pull for each other,” Pantuso said. “I think by trying to help the kids be calm about things and put (the test) in perspective, they'll do better.”

Test changes

The STAAR will be a high-stakes test — but not as high this year.

Starting next school year, the STAAR end-of-course score will count toward 15 percent of a high school student's course grade, affecting grade-point averages and class rank. The TEA agreed to waive the 15 percent provision this year for districts that apply by May 1, and more than 450 school districts had done so as of Thursday. Most Bexar County districts are expected to opt out.

Because of the transition, the state won't require that fifth- and eighth-graders pass the test to advance a grade. State accountability ratings will also be suspended.

One big unknown is what students need to score on the STAAR to pass, which TEA officials said they hope to establish by mid-April for high school students and by late fall for grades 3-8.

Some educators are miffed that high school students, who will need to pass the tests in order to receive graduation credits, won't know the passing standards until after they take the test.

And while educators have been told the test will include more open-ended questions and be more rigorous, their biggest concern may be that test-taking will now be timed. STAAR tests will be limited to four-hour periods. Previous standardized tests gave students as much time as they needed to finish.

“This is the first time ever that they've given us a timed test. That's a concern for the little ones,” Pantuso said, adding that while students will be given a break for lunch, bathroom breaks will have to be taken on the clock. “I'm not sure what the legislators think they're going to gain by doing this but they don't always ask our opinion.”

Pizza and practice

On Monday, ninth-grade students will take end-of-course STAAR writing exams for English I and English III. Starting Tuesday, the week also will offer math, writing and reading tests for grades 4, 5, 7 and 8.

Third-grade testing will begin April 24, and students in grades 3-8 will continue to take tests in math, reading, science, writing and social studies. Ninth-graders, however, will take end-of-course exams based specifically on their classes.

On the eve of the test, Judson ISD's Wagner High School offered a Saturday “EOC camp,” which focused on English language arts, Monday's test. As incentives, school officials offered free bus transportation, breakfast tacos and pizza.

School officials expected about 200 to attend the half-day camp. Channel Rodgers, the English Department chair at Wagner, said it was designed to be a review but also a reminder.

“Students are prepared. They're more prepared than probably what they believe,” Rodgers said. “We're just trying to put ourselves in a position that when they sit down that day, it looks familiar to them.”

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