The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, better known as the STAAR tests, are generally used by the Texas Education Agency to assess public schools, students and districts. For the past two school years though, the TEA has suspended the tests or made them optional because of how the pandemic disrupted education.
This year, however, they count. The STAAR tests that students took in the 2021-2022 school year will be factored into how each public school and district is rated on a scale from A to F. This school accountability system hasn’t returned in full force — schools that earn a D or an F rating will receive a “not rated” label instead, and face no sanctions – but it’s a definite move toward a return to full-on high-stakes testing.
Superintendents of two Texas public school districts – Michael Cardona of San Marcos CISD, and Angélica Ramsey of Midland ISD – spoke to Texas Standard about the impact of returning to high-stakes testing. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Superintendent Ramsey, can you tell us generally what it was like for students to take the STAAR tests again this year?
Angélica Ramsey: Well, I think that this year, particularly, of all the three interrupted years, has been really difficult for teachers and for our students. And while we’re appreciative of having the opportunity to show what our teachers and students have done all year, it was a return to some stress and a stress level for parents, teachers and students. After three really difficult academic years, we’re excited to see where we’re at as far as growth. But we also are a little concerned about all of the COVID slide that has occurred over the last couple of years.
Superintendent Cardona, what’s your take on that
Michael Cardona: I wholeheartedly agree. I would add that we spent a lot of time just stabilizing our system as I’m sure everybody has. And that includes teachers. And so this time with STAAR coming around, I noticed more trauma. I guess – trauma is a good word – in the system in terms of teachers intuitively wanting kids to do well. They want them to be successful. The kids want to be successful for their teachers. But you could see this added weight put on the system. And when we were just trying to recover as we’re having attendance issues, getting kids back in, making sure everybody’s health and safety is taken care of, then we put this test in front of them that in the grand scheme of things really doesn’t mean anything. To my knowledge, no college, no university, no workforce system uses it. It’s a system built by politicians to grade schools. And we talk about stress and we talk about mental health. And what do you do when it’s just the state system almost putting an abuse on kids that that’s not necessary at this time?
I’ve heard this described as shifting perhaps from teaching for kids to teaching for the tests because so much rides on the outcome could. Could you explain, Superintendent Ramsey, what’s at stake for your schools when it comes to this test, why there’s so much anxiety around it?
Ramsey: Well, I’ll say first that our emphasis is not to teach to a test, because what’s important to us is that our students grow and that they master the standards of that grade level. And that’s what’s been difficult, because we’re talking about three years where they haven’t had the opportunity in the same way in person to have instruction in their grade levels.
But at the same time, you’re absolutely right. Schools are graded and rated. School districts are. And while we have an A through F system, it’s very difficult for someone that hasn’t had a deep dive into the accountability manual to really understand what that a through F system means. It isn’t exactly like when we were in school – If you get a 95, it means an A. So there’s a lot of complexity to that. And for our staff, they want to help our students grow and learn. And when they’re thinking that they’re going to be rated this year and judged, it’s a very stressful time. And just mental health issues we’ve seen across the board with children and adults in our systems. It’s just a hard, hard spring for them.
Superintendent Cardona, could you say a little bit more in detail about what the stakes are if a school gets a C versus a D or an F and what does that actually mean as a practical matter for school?
Cardona: Well, I think for us – and practically, for any school system – when you have parents and families moving into a system, the first thing they do is look up the schools and typically they work with realtors. And so realtors usually go to web sites like Niche.com or SchoolDigger.com and they’ll look up school systems. And so you’ll get a score, you’ll get a rating. And you don’t really understand what is going on within a school system unless you live in it. And so if you see a, C or D, you think the school’s not doing very well. I’m going to move to a place that has A or B, but it doesn’t really tell the story. Right next to us is an ISD that is 20% kids in poverty. We sit at 78% of our kids in poverty. And we all know that when kids come with limited resources, it takes more resources to show growth, to get them on or above grade level.
And so you have this one-day metric that kind of sets the tone. The business community doesn’t really understand the complexities behind this system. And let me just point this out, the absurdity of this system, right? So let’s say you’re a Spanish speaking kid in Texas who comes in third grade and takes the reading test in Spanish, and you pass it and then you go to fourth grade and you take the fourth grade reading test in English and you pass it and you meet the standard. You don’t show a growth measure. We’re not giving kids the benefit of the doubt.
I want to make sure this is understood. This has to do with the way schools are funded. If the realtor is saying ‘be careful about this area because the schools are not rated well,’ what that means is fewer people in that district, you have a tax base that’s reduced. Schools get less funding. And that would mean that schools already struggling don’t have the resources to recover or build.
Cardona: 100% accurate. Yes.
This accountability issue has been around for certainly as long as I can remember. There has to be some system of accountability. If this is not working, what’s a better way of evaluating schools? Or should they be evaluated in some manner, like a STAAR test?
Ramsey: I would say that an assessment, a state assessment, has a place, but the over emphasis on it is what’s harmful. I would like to see statewide local accountability measures because every community is different. We could set with our community what are our priorities and have that play a larger role in accountability. And it not be about just how a student does one day of the year for four hours on the test.
Superintendent Cardona, was it too soon to return to the use of the STAAR tests for accountability purposes?
Cardona: I don’t know that it was too soon. We all agree on accountability and I think it is a tool. Everybody knows if you’re not rated, how you scored. I mean, they’re going to know that. But I think we look at other metrics. We’re using PSAT ACT. workforce readiness. military readiness. So we know metrics on how kids are doing on the ASVAB and things like that. So we’re not about not being accountable, but we have systems in place that allow us to look at that. And this test is a reactionary test. It’s one day and then we react to it. It’s not proactive.