Daniel Saldana, 9th grade student at Elsik High school, looks up during a quiz about biomolecules during an afternoon intervention program on April 19, 2018. Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune
Texas’ unpopular statewide standardized test is once again caught in legislative crosshairs, this time after a controversial Texas Monthly article has questioned whether the test was evaluating elementary and middle school students based on reading passages that were one to three grades above their level.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, along with academic experts and educators, will appear before the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday to answer questions about the test, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. Then, the panel will consider a slate of bills proposing slashing the number of state-required STAAR exams.
Educators and parents have been arguing for years that the STAAR is too high-stakes and an inaccurate measure of whether students are academically succeeding. Lawmakers have generally been sympathetic to this argument, passing laws over the last several years to drastically reduce the number of required exams and shorten the length of some assessments.
But the Texas Monthly story has brought a new round of scrutiny. The article is based on two studies, from 2012 and 2016, which ran test passages through formulas designed to analyze their complexity and found they were generally too challenging for students. Education advocates are pointing to the studies to argue that the state is wrongly judging whether students can read at grade level, placing them in needless remedial instruction and unnecessarily penalizing schools and districts.
Student scores on the STAAR are the main component in determining school and district ratings, and part of determining whether students have learned enough to move up a grade or graduate. In 2018, just 46 percent of Texas students were at or above grade level for reading or English.
“Politically, there’s probably more of an appetite this session to do something about STAAR,” said state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, a member of the House Public Education Committee. “What that is remains to be seen.”
VanDeaver will present a bill to the committee Tuesday rolling back the number of state-required STAAR exams, closer to the federally-required minimum.
“This new information coming out certainly gives us an opportunity to push the pause button and do some real research” on STAAR’s merits, he said.
Texas Education Agency officials, meanwhile, are defending the test. Two days after the Texas Monthly article was published, the agency sent a letter to lawmakers saying that the formula used in the studies is “inappropriate” for judging whether STAAR exams are on grade level.
That formula — called a “Lexile measure” — uses factors such as the number of syllables per word to judge the complexity of a book or passage. Generally, teachers use Lexile measures to match students with texts that match their reading ability or monitor whether their skills are growing, according to Eleanor Sanford-Moore, senior vice-president of research and development for MetaMetrics, which owns Lexile.
Lexile measures are not used to match a text to a certain grade level, and they have limited use in determining whether a state assessment like STAAR is grade-appropriate.
“These types of [state standardized] tests will have a range in the difficulty of passages so that students of differing ability levels can have access to passages at their reading level,” Sanford-Moore said in a statement to the Tribune.
But advocates argue that teachers are expected to teach grade-level text in the classroom, and use Lexile measures as one piece of evidence showing whether students are succeeding.
“If you have a kid and you’ve told their parents in parent conferences that their student is doing well, they’re making progress, they’re reading on grade level, and here’s all the data we have to show your student is doing well — and then it comes back with the label of approaches grade level? That is confusing to teachers,” said Dee Carney, associate at consulting firm Moak, Casey and Associates, and part of the coalition calling for the state to reconsider using STAAR.