“Make kids sweat.” Morath updates House Public Education Committee on student testing developments
Date Posted: 8/10/2022 | Author: Andrea Chevalier
Tuesday’s meeting of the Texas House Public Education Committee was all about standardized testing. On its Aug. 9 agenda was a discussion of House Bill (HB) 3906, passed in 2019, and unfulfilled recommendations of the 2016 Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability (CNGAA). Compared to the committee’s previous meeting on curriculum, Tuesday’s testimony and discussions were significantly lighter and shorter.
Commissioner of Education Mike Morath spoke first to the committee, consistently defending the usefulness, validity, and reliability of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) despite widespread criticism of the tests. Recall the lexile level debate (which Morath claims was debunked even though many questions remained after a state-mandated study of the STAAR) and ever-present concerns with programs tied to the test, such as the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA). In our recent teacher vacancy survey, one ATPE member referred to TIA as “value with strings attached.”
Under HB 3906, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will roll out a significant STAAR redesign during the 2022-23 school year, focusing on transitioning the STAAR to a fully online assessment (which Morath noted is cheaper than pen and pencil tests), adding new question types (e.g., open-ended short answers), incorporating cross-curricular passages, and collapsing writing assessments into the reading assessment.
The member-written and approved ATPE Legislative Program recommends that the state reduce the number of mandated tests and that accountability laws be designed to allow educators to meet the needs of individual students. Based on our program, ATPE supported the passage of HB 3906, which reduced state-mandated tests by eliminating the grade 4 and 7 writing tests and established an educator-involved pilot to replace the STAAR. However, there are several key considerations to monitor as this bill continues to be implemented by TEA.
ATPE’s written testimony also warned that cross-curricular concepts (such as a reading passage involving science TEKS from the same grade level) should be carefully designed to avoid a situation where students are being tested on their background knowledge rather than their reading ability. Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) asked Commissioner Morath about cross-curricular questions, expressing concerns with equity across student populations. Morath replied that students should know all content from their grade level by the time testing occurs and indicated that the change would inspire curriculum changes, including more cross-curricular planning in schools. Although all grade-level content may be fair-game in some cases, ATPE believes that the current learning environment includes many hard-to-staff positions and rampant vacancies that complicate this idealized view. ATPE also shared in our written testimony that the push to use standardized testing to control curriculum and delivery concerns many education advocates.
HB 3906 eliminated the grades 4 and 7 standalone STAAR exams for writing, but Texas still tests students on 8th Grade U.S. History, 11th Grade U.S. History, and English II, which are tests not required by federal law. The plainest reading of HB 3906 would seem to indicate the legislature’s intent to remove writing from the STAAR testing regime in grades 3-8, as federal law allows. Instead, TEA chose to embed writing into the reading tests. Though it is too late to change this course of action for the upcoming school year, ATPE recommends that legislators plan to solicit feedback from English Language Arts and Reading (ELAR) teachers during the next interim and consider whether this new iteration of the STAAR writing test is as problematic as the previous iteration.
Another noteworthy aspect of HB 3906 is the concept of optional, interim, and formative STAAR assessments and resources. Morath testified that approximately “one million kids’ worth of districts” used the 2021-22 interim assessments. ATPE recommends that the legislature revisit the limits on the amount of instructional time that can be dedicated to standardized interim assessments, especially considering the extreme burden on educators’ time in the current school environment.
Lastly, to comply with HB 3906, TEA is implementing the Texas Through-year Assessment Pilot (TTAP) to explore replacing the end-of-year, high-emphasis summative assessment with a new low-emphasis assessment system – “baby tests,” as Morath put it – spread across the year. The agency will begin piloting this work with more than 130 districts and charter operators during the upcoming 2022-23 school year. ATPE recommended that TTAP involve extensive stakeholder communication efforts to avoid increased stress among educators and to improve trust, especially on the heels of poor rollouts of programs such as the Texas Reading Academies and the HB 4545 accelerated instruction requirements.
ATPE also identified the three recommendations from the final report of the Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability that have the potential to reduce the burdensome nature of the accountability system on Texas students and educators and create a more accurate and responsive system that could improve educators’ ability to meet the needs of individual students:
- Study alternative, district-based assessment and accountability systems.
- Study, using existing data, to test the relationship between the results of stratified, random sampling and whole-population testing.
- Study of the effect of weighting Domain I (Student Achievement) by the length of time a student has been enrolled in a Texas public school district.
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