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STAAR testing in progress across state this week

By by Peggy Jones
April 1, 2013 at 10 p.m.

Students across Texas are poring over state-mandated tests this week even as lawmakers debate reducing the number of tests students must take.

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness began Monday for high school students and expanded today to fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth- graders - putting schools in library-mode: "Quiet. Testing in progress."

"It pretty much shuts things down," said White Oak ISD Superintendent Mike Gilbert. "We feel like there's a better way."

At Hallsville, evening school activities were canceled thoughout the STAAR testing week.

If state-mandated "must-pass" tests put teachers and students under stress normally, this year seemed doubly so for some.

"This is the first time in recent memory that we've begun state testing on a Monday following a holiday," said Longview ISD testing coordinator Catina Love. "So, teachers are naturally somewhat stressed over that."

Spring Hill ISD Superintendent Wes Jones said the tests, while necessary to assess students' understanding of subject matter, can add tremendous pressure to students who struggle the most.

"Lots of kids don't stress out over the tests - they feel confident they'll make a commended rating. But other kids just aren't good test-takers," he said. "Some kids know they're on the bubble so they're apprehensive."

Superintendents across the region questioned the emphasis placed on the must-pass tests.

"As part of the Texas High Performance School Consortium, we are working to create a new assessment, accountability and rating system," Gilbert said. "One that is more conducive to evaluating students over a body of work not just a test."

Pine Tree ISD Superintendent T.J. Farler said, "Meaningful assessment is critical in the teaching and learning process. The instructional information we receive from the STAAR testing as well as the instructional data we collect on a regular bases is what PTISD uses to improve our students' learning."

She added, "No one test or one single measurement can give a true picture of a child's educational progress."

Ninth and 11th-graders took the end-of-course writing exams Monday amid uncertainty about the tests' future. They are currently required to take 15 must-pass exams during their high school careers - three years of math, science, social studies, reading and writing - but that could soon change.

With just two dissenting votes, the Texas House agreed last week to reduce the requirements to five tests, a change that would apply retroactively to today's ninth- and 10th-grade students should it become law.

The Senate has not taken up the legislation but it is moving toward reducing the number of exams required for graduation.

In Spring Hill ISD, as in most districts across the region, educators were proceeding on Monday as if the tests would carry as much importance as they always have.

"We're assuming the tests in the lower grades will stay," Jones said. "I think the third through eighth-grade STAAR test is really what they will hold to. We're alright with testing for accountability in the lower grades."

Gilbert said he believed in the importance of assessing the younger grades, "We're doing too much and there is an over emphasis on the results. I think there's way too much weight involved on this one test. There should be other things involved in whether a student passes."

Texas Education Agency spokesman Debbie Ratcliffe said that 'better safe than sorry' attitude was prudent.

"At this point, parents should assume that the tests will count as they always have," she said. "There are a number of bills that have been filed that would modify the testing program but it is likely to be late May before we will know if anything passes. The most cautious approach for students and parents to take is to assume that the graduation requirements, which call for freshmen and sophomores to pass 15 end-of-course exams, are still in place."

The importance of the tests was reflected in attendance on Monday.

Longview ISD reported 97.88 percent of LEAD Academy students were in class on Monday. The average daily attendance at LEAD during first semester was 87.08 percent.

In Longview's ninth grade, 99.64 percent of the 549 students were in class Monday compared to a daily average attendance during in the first semester of 96.33 percent, according to data supplied by the district.

Jones suggested parents be sure students get a good night sleep before any tests and eat breakfast.

"The research shows kids do better when they get a good night's sleep and eat breakfast," he said.

The STAAR tests did not count for elementary and middle school students last year. Statewide, 80 percent of the eighth-graders passed the reading test and 76 percent met the standard in math. In both subjects, 77 percent of the fifth-graders passed.

If the students fail the high-stakes exams in April, there will be two other retests given before the next school year. They may also be promoted to the next grade with the approval of a campus committee.



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