Move over TAKS, state has new STAAR test

July 30, 2011 at 2:30 a.m.
Updated July 31, 2011 at 2:31 a.m.

Big changes await Texas students this school year as the state phases out its TAKS tests, which have been the benchmark for assessing education since 2003.

There's a new acronym-dominating educators' vocabularies - STAAR. The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness debut this school year, and the changes, especially for high school students, are shaping up to be monumental.

Beginning with this year's freshman class, the new tests will substitute the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam as the leading indicator of student success for third through 12th grades.

"I think we're all pretty nervous because of the newness of it, and the unknown of it ... and just because we know the level of rigor is much more there than with the TAKS," East High School Principal Greg Crockett said after leaving a district meeting about some STAAR specifics.

While schools still wait for clarity on assessment unknowns from the Texas Education Agency, several used the term "rigorous" to describe what they do know about the STAAR exam.

That means students will be required to have a deeper understanding of the ideas they're learning.

Whereas the TAKS test may have scratched the surface of several concepts, the STAAR tests will probe fewer concepts much more thoroughly. In reading, for example, the state will emphasize analysis rather than literal understanding.

"Teachers are going to have to provide varying levels of questioning. The level of questioning is going to have to get much deeper," said Susanne Carroll, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

The TEA pushed for the new assessment in reaction to what it called a growing national consensus to provide a more clearly-articulated education program. The STAAR aims to make students more able to compete globally by focusing on fewer skills in a deeper manner, according to the TEA website.

The STAAR will alter the expectations for high schoolers most dramatically. To graduate, most students will now be required to pass 12 STAAR end-of-course exams, compared to four under the TAKS system.

The STAAR tests include algebra I and II, geometry, biology, chemistry, physics, English I, II and III, world geography, world history and U.S. history.

Students who graduate under the minimum degree program will not have to pass the physics, chemistry or algebra II exams to graduate.

About 32 percent of last year's Victoria senior classes graduated on the minimum plan, which is designed for students who have had trouble progressing through high school, said Diane Boyett, Victoria school district spokesman.

Performance on the 12 exams will not only make or break students' names reaching a diploma; test scores are also linked to the levels of classes they'll be able to take in high school.

To add to the weight of it, each STAAR test will account for 15 percent of a student's grade in class.

"If it didn't count for 15 percent of your grade, we've had the discussion, will (students) value it?" Carroll said. "I really feel like our kids are going to be very well-prepared, and if we present it to them that way, it's an expectation."

The district is already prioritizing preparing teachers to adjust their instruction techniques to reflect the demands of the STAAR test. The district can't yet put a number on how much implementing the STAAR test will cost, but Carroll said the man hours the district is using to prepare teachers is extensive.

Crockett said teachers will be trained not to teach to the STAAR, but to simply illuminate the deeper understanding students should be achieving in each of their courses, test or not.

"We know if we are teaching our curriculum that the state has given us ... we will help our students be successful at the end of course," he said.

After explaining how the STAAR test will affect the district, Dionne Loughman, coordinator of assessment and accountability, spoke as a parent of a middle-schooler.

She said the changes will make her son more ready for college.

"The instruction is going to be better. It's not going to be easier, but I think it's going to be better. And in the end, doing what's right for kids is what matters," she said.

Loughman and Carroll said the district will lay out at the start of the school year the heightened expectations that await students with the STAAR test.

For the most part, the new freshman class has only heard rumors that the test will be more difficult.

But that didn't faze one East freshman.

"It's gonna be all right because this is Eastside," Demaurier-r McFail, 13, said. "I think everybody as a school together is going to do good."

Demaurier-r was leaving East High School's Destination Success summer camp, which touched on the new challenges that await the ninth grade class with the STAAR test. The freshman football player said the camp made him confident he will be successful in high school.

"They just take away all the worry," Demaurier-r said. "It's hard because we work hard, but at the same time, it's easy because they explain it to us."

That's just the outlook Crockett said he hopes to inspire in his students. The high school plans on offering STAAR tutoring during the school day to motivate students to acknowledge their progress.

"You have to have an attitude like that. Then you have to have a school that can support an attitude like that," he said.

Tenth through 12th grades will continue taking the TAKS test until graduation. The STAAR test should be fully implemented by 2014.

The state will not release accountability ratings for the 2011-12 school year, as it sorts through the results of the first year of STAAR tests.



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