The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness loom large for school districts. How students perform on STAAR tests plays a significant role in how the state rates the performance of entire districts as well as individual campuses.
The Texas Education Agency is rolling out two major changes this school year to these standardized tests, which public school students must take each year from third to 12th grade. First, the test has been revamped. The STAAR redesign limits the percentage of multiple choice questions, introduces new question types and requires more essay writing. Second, now nearly all students will take the test online. Previously, students were able to take it online or on paper.
While state lawmakers mandated these changes during the last two legislative sessions, both were required to take effect during the 2022-2023 school year.
Lily Laux, the TEA deputy commissioner of school programs, said the online version makes it easier to provide eligible students with testing accommodations, such as text-to-speech. She said the online format also makes test results available more quickly.
“We don’t have to wait for tests to get shipped back and all those sorts of things that have historically been a part of paper testing,” she said.
Certain students are exempt from taking the test on a computer, though, including students who need accommodations that cannot be provided online and students with significant cognitive disabilities who are taking the STAAR Alternate 2 assessment.
But the Texas Legislature is considering a bill that would once again give all students the option to take STAAR tests in a paper format. Supporters of the legislation say it’s important for students to have the option not only because it may cause students less stress but also because research has shown students perform better on tests administered on paper.
A push for paper
State Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, is making the case that students should still have access to standardized tests in a paper format. His bill is pretty simple. It would require a school district to give a student a paper test if the student’s parent, guardian or teacher requests that. HB 1225 requires the request be submitted to the student’s principal at least 60 days before the test is administered.
Metcalf said not all kids are good test-takers and they are under a lot of pressure to do well.
“The least we can do for our students is allow for some flexibility with the form of the exam, because for some students this can make a big difference,” he said in an emailed statement to KUT. “I know personally I don’t like staring at a screen any longer than I have to, and my daughters who are in fifth grade say many of their classmates feel the same.”
Metcalf noted that the paper format is a reliable backup when online testing hits a snag. He said, during this school year, one of his daughter’s classes had a technical issue with the online benchmark exams. The start of the test was delayed by about an hour.
“For kids who already have anxiety going into these high stakes tests, these kinds of delays can be extremely unnerving,” he said. “When technology fails, we should have a failsafe for these exams and paper format tests are most reliable.”
In April 2021, the TEA told school districts to suspend the first day of STAAR testing because of widespread technical issues with the online version of the test. The Texas Tribune reported that students taking the STAAR on paper were able to take the test as planned.
The TEA no longer uses the vendor, Educational Testing Service, that was administering the test when those online issues arose. Laux said the state has also invested significantly in efforts to ensure schools have reliable internet connections.
Educators worry about switching from paper to online
Metcalf is not alone in his concern that the elimination of a paper version of STAAR is going to negatively impact students. Public school administrators are worried, too.
In response to that concern, the TEA announced last month that school districts could identify a small number of students to take the test on paper “to assist school systems with the implementation of the first year of administering STAAR primarily online.”
But Ana Rush, the executive director of academics and accountability for Del Valle ISD, said that still isn’t enough.
“How do we choose who gets the paper and who gets the online? That should be the parent, the student, deciding what is best for them,” she told KUT. “This is why we’re trying to make sure that anyone that wants the paper [test] can have that opportunity.”
Rush, who testified in favor of Metcalf’s bill last month, said DVISD has found that students perform better on paper assessments than they do on online ones. She said many of the strategies students have learned for taking standardized tests have been geared toward taking those tests in a paper format.
“So, I do think it is unfair for the students to put them in that situation where their performance and what they have been using is the paper-pencil method, and now we’re telling them you have to test online,” she said.
Rush said DVISD’s goal is to help students develop critical thinking skills through hands-on learning opportunities, field trips and other engaging activities. She does not want kids to be planted in front of a computer just so they can perform well on an online test. Rush added that especially for elementary school students, the test will be less of a measure of what they’ve learned and more of an indicator of how well they can type and use a computer.
“The students should have had the opportunity to test on paper to really reflect and to really show what they know how to do and to show their strategies, and to show all the things we’ve been doing this year that align to our curriculum,” she said.
Rush also pointed out that mandating students take STAAR online raises concerns about equity because not every student has access to a computer at home. Ninety percent of Del Valle ISD’s student population, for example, is considered economically disadvantaged. Any changes to standardized testing from the question types to how the test is administered, said Rush, have a disproportionate impact on school districts that serve economically disadvantaged students.
“We’re doing a lot of things for our students, and we’re really proud of that,” she said. “I think that the accountability system should reflect the true work that we’re doing … to prepare students for the future.”
Passing the STAAR is no longer a requirement to advance to the next grade level, but the scores do impact schools. The TEA’s accountability system gives school districts and individual campuses letter grades based largely on how students perform on the STAAR test. While the state agency held off on doling out letter grades for several years because of the pandemic, the ratings returned in 2022. Only 18% of the state’s “high-poverty” campuses received an A rating.
The critical role STAAR results play in evaluating school districts and campuses is what worries Cassidy Woodall most. The Austin ISD fifth-grade teacher said his students have always taken the STAAR in a paper format.
“With paper there’s a lot more leeway for the students to write in the margins or underline specific things,” he said. “They can use lots of testing strategies that we’re really only able to teach in an on-paper format.”
Woodall added that the STAAR is not the most accurate way to measure what students have learned. The way questions are phrased, for example, can throw off students who actually do understand the concepts they’re being tested on.
“I can only think that the online version is just going to throw yet another wrench in their ability to synthesize the information properly,” he said.
Woodall said he does not think switching STAAR to an online format will necessarily stress out students, but it might affect how they approach the test. He said, anecdotally, students take paper tests more seriously than online ones. One reason for that, Woodall said, is that students are used to doing fun things on computers, like playing games. He added that switching to an online format would not be as concerning if STAAR scores did not play such a significant role in how the state evaluates campuses and school districts.
“It wouldn’t be a big deal if it were just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s the whole puzzle,” he said. “And so, that’s what makes it so stressful.”
The very real impact of consistently low accountability ratings is playing out in Houston right now. The TEA is taking over the entire district, which includes removing the superintendent and democratically-elected school board. The agency said the primary reason for the intervention is that one high school campus received failing grades for five consecutive years.
Research finds students do better on paper tests
Laux said she understands that school districts are nervous about the switch to online testing but that she does not expect the test to be harder because it’s online.
“We are very confident that we’re able to take into account the redesign pieces and make sure that the test is the same level of difficulty,” she said.
Laux also pointed out the vast majority of Texas students already take STAAR online.
“Nearly 80% of school districts actually took the test online last spring, and we already had a full online administration in December,” she said. “So, in practice, we’ve actually seen districts and students respond really well to the shift online even though we understand there’s still some anxiety around it.”
But educators’ concerns that students may not perform as well online as they do on paper is backed up by research. Ben Backes with the American Institutes for Research examined whether the way a test is administered affects how well a student performs on that test. He calls that a “test mode effect.”
Backes and a fellow researcher looked at how Massachusetts’ move to computer-testing impacted student scores over a two-year period. Some schools in that state were administering the test online, and some were administering it on paper. They found students who took standardized tests online systematically got lower scores than those who took the same test on paper.
“We did everything we could to see if there was some alternate explanation, and we ended up concluding that this looked like a true test mode effect,” he said.
Backes did find that the impact on scores was most significant in the first year that students switched to taking the test online.
“In the second year, we did see a pretty substantial reduction in what we termed the ‘online test mode penalty,’” he said.
Backes said that, based on his research, if he were a parent who cared about the test scores of his kids, he would request that they be able to take a test on paper rather than online.
“At the same time, having the paper option also raises fairness concerns because you could think of a story where maybe only the most motivated and involved parents are going to be aware of this and take the time to request this option,” he said. “And it’s another way of having the most advantaged kids have another advantage.”
A perfect storm
Rush said ultimately public school districts are staring down three major changes at once from the Texas Education Agency as they still recover from the pandemic.
First, there’s the redesigned STAAR test which includes new types of questions. Second, there’s the fact that nearly all students now have to take it online. And, third, the TEA is rolling out an update to its A-F accountability system this school year that could make it harder for districts to do as well when assessed for college, career and military readiness. (More than 200 school districts, including Austin and Del Valle ISDs, sent a letter to the TEA last month opposing the changes.)
“It is a very stressful year, I think, for everyone in education, everyone in K-12, here in the state,” she said.
Rush said that it would not be hard to switch back to administering STAAR on paper if Metcalf’s bill makes it through the legislature. And Metcalf is hopeful the bill will advance.
“All this bill will do is allow some parents and kids the option to take a paper exam if that is what works best for that child,” he said. “Texas parents and kids need this option if we’re going to put so much emphasis on the importance of standardized testing.”
Metcalf’s bill remains in the Texas House Public Education committee, which has not yet voted on whether to advance it to the entire House for consideration.