STAAR results uncover a desperate need to improve

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As headlines surfaced this week about the declining passing rates of Texas students on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), we think it’s important to remember what exactly those rates mean.

First, STAAR tests have been found to accurately assess if students have learned the content Texas deems appropriate for each grade level or subject. Second, they are the only consistent measures we have to determine whether or not every student is prepared to tackle the next grade level or the challenges that await them after high school.

That is why the most recent data released by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are so alarming. As many of us think of classroom grades when we see percentages, numbers hovering around 70 percent don’t seem so bad. Most of the passing rates on critical reading and English exams are in that range. But let’s look at that number another way.

The human toll

When combined, the number of students who failed reading tests in grades three through eight and the number of students who failed English exams in ninth and tenth grades amounts to 1,014,346.1 Put another way, an assembly held in the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium (the nation’s fifth-largest stadium) would have to be repeated ten times at max capacity to accommodate all of those students.

.AT&T Stadium

Would you want to lead that assembly? To announce that despite their hard work they’re still not “there” yet? To break it to a cavernous stadium of bright-eyed learners that unless they catch up their options will be slim? To admit that the system has failed them? To repeat that same speech ten times?

No Texan should have to endure that experience. But teachers, students, and parents are feeling that pain this summer as they get STAAR results back. And in their world, it’s no stadium. It’s one face at a time.

STAAR’s purpose

STAAR is not a needless exercise; it uncovers gaps in learning that eventually take root if not addressed. Data collected on high school and postsecondary outcomes in Texas shows it. Though Texas has one of the highest graduation rates in the nation (89 percent), institutions of higher education are finding many graduates unprepared for the rigors of pursuing either two- or four-year degrees. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has found that 60 percent of students who enter a two-year college are not college-ready. The number is 18 percent at four-year universities.2

That means hundreds of thousands of Texas students are dropping out of school before graduation. It also means far too many students that walk the stage are still extremely likely to struggle through higher education if they go at all. Those are the students the STAAR test is likely to identify—and early enough to target instruction to areas of academic need.

In the past, the student-level data it gleaned was difficult for parents to understand and use at home. This year, however, is the start of something new. Reimagined STAAR report cards will break down what a student needs to work on to get back on track. The accompanying online portal will even allow parents to see the test questions and how their student answered. It is a huge step forward, but we can’t stop there.

Charting a new course

We’ve got to start looking at and fixing the underlying issues that led to their failure in the first place. We must expand access to high-quality pre-kindergarten to get more students reading on grade level by the third grade. We must find solutions to the ever-growing challenges in our teaching force. We must improve the way we provide instruction to English language learners, a rapidly growing student population. We must recommit to rigorous standards for all students and provide them the resources to meet them.

If we do that, we chart a new course in preparation for a future we know will be filled with jobs that require more skills. If we do that, our young people will be able to earn a decent living, businesses will be able to grow, and the “Texas miracle” can continue.

Texas, we’re better than this, and our students deserve more. Schools should challenge and support them so they can succeed. Legislators should put aside the identities of rural or urban, of Republican or Democrat and face the prospect of a weaker Texas if important reforms are not embraced. Most importantly, we should all commit to holding those adults accountable if they don’t make that happen. There’s too much at stake to keep pretending everything’s just fine.

 


1 Calculated by multiplying the number of students in each grade by the percentage of students who did not meet standard. Source: http://tea.texas.gov/acctres/enroll_index.html

2 Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. 2017 Texas Public Higher Education Almanac. http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/PDF/9435.PDF?CFID=62987767&CFTOKEN=58223124

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