STAAR test explained: Confused yet?

Sept. 26, 2011 at 4:26 a.m.

Parents of West High School freshmen were introduced Wednesday night to the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness test, which this year will be phased in as the new education assessment for third- through ninth-graders.

"Confused yet?" a slide from the hour-and-a-half presentation asked the crowd of about 25.

Even with a 400-plus page transition document the Texas Education Agency has provided districts, schools will not have a grasp on what it will take for students to pass the STAAR test and to graduate until February.

"We know they're going to be required to meet something; TEA just hasn't told us what yet," Dionne Loughman, district coordinator of assessment and accountability, said during her presentation.

Loughman took care to break down what the district does know about the transition to the STAAR test.

This year's freshman class will be the first to graduate under the STAAR assessment, while sophomores and juniors close out their high school careers with the final two years of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, test.

The STAAR test is slated to be a more rigorous exam, requiring more complex thinking and application of knowledge. The exams also will have more questions to be answered under a time limit of four hours, compared to a full day's testing under the TAKS exams.

Other highlights of Loughman's presentation explained that the STAAR test will do the following:

Require students to take 12 end-of-course exams, three in each of the four main content areas: English, math, science and social studies.

Assign students a cumulative score in each of the content areas based on the three tests. The cumulative scores will determine the degree plan - minimum, recommended or distinguished - under which a student is eligible to graduate. To graduate at all, a student's cumulative score must meet the minimum state standard in each core area.

Allow students not meeting the minimum score or who wish to improve their scores to achieve a higher degree plan to retake the tests as many times as they want.

Require that the end-of-course exam count for 15 percent of a student's final grade in a course.

Be included in class rank calculations, though only the first attempt will count.

Provide some of the same accommodations for students with cognitive disabilities, English language learners, and those who meet the criteria for a modified exam.

Loughman said VISD has been anticipating the switch to the STAAR test by switching its curriculum to CSCOPE, which is used in 19 of the 20 education regions of Texas. The curriculum is well-aligned with the depth of the STAAR test, she said.

"We're all having growing pains implementing this curriculum because the curriculum is tough. But so is the STAAR test," she said. "We're hopeful that a student's grade on the course is going to match their score on the test. That means our curriculum is aligned with state assessment."

After the presentation and several Q&A's, a group of parents agreed they were concerned about the new assessment.

"I'm concerned because you know what the school is teaching, and you know what the state is mandating, but you're still unsure where it's going to mesh," said Heather Fajkus, who has a freshman and junior at West.

She was speaking with Becki Redding, the mother of another freshman, who said she's uneasy about the unknowns of the new test. But speaking as a former educator, Redding said she thinks the STAAR will be a better test than the TAKS.

"Great teachers were being stifled. This test coming in is better. I think it's going to be more teaching skills, concepts, not just how to take a test," she said.

Loughman said the new format in particular is designed to discourage teachers from teaching students test-taking tactics and to focus more on how to apply concepts.

Whatever concerns Fajkus and Redding have about the STAAR test, the mothers said they're convinced the teachers and staff at West High School will meet the needs of students by continuing early-morning tutoring, intervention programs and being accessible.

"We get emails from teachers, and the communication on this campus is really good," Fajkus said. "It's a change, and change is not necessarily a bad thing."



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