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STAAR testing can make parents less informed about a student’s progress

By Eric Simpson

Parents need to understand the STAAR tests that define the lion’s share of public education approaches in Texas, but Bill McHenry gets it wrong in his recent “What Texas parents need to know about STAAR” in TribTalk.

First and foremost is his assertion that the state test is an effective tool for measuring a student's learning: Nothing could be further from the truth.

ETS, the company that conducts the test for the state, and Pearson before it, did not design STAAR to measure student learning or the level of a student’s mastery of a specific subject area. It is designed to compare student groups from across the state. The erroneous assertion that a parent, or a teacher for that matter, can use the data from state testing to make diagnostic claims about a student’s individual educational needs is harmful to students and leads to misinformed instructional decisions.

What STAAR actually measures

The questions on STAAR or End-of-Course (EOC) tests are meant to discriminate between below-average, average and above-average students in a specific grade level, which is a useful function of a test if you're trying to compare large groups to one another and identify patterns of achievement. However, it is worse than useless for looking at individual students. If you use the data to draw conclusions about individual student learning, you’ll draw false conclusions about what that student has learned. STAAR does not measure student knowledge, not even “at one moment in time.” What’s more, it doesn’t attempt to do so.

There are two reasons for this. First, as both the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and ETS have repeatedly stated, the test questions are not designed to measure mastery of academic concepts. While each question is aligned with a specific Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) student expectation, it is not designed to judge the extent of a particular student’s learning.

Second, even if the questions were designed to measure mastery, there aren’t enough test questions in each area to determine whether or not a student has learned a skill. The majority of TEKS in any subject are tested using only one or two questions — not to mention the dozens of TEKS that are never tested on STAAR. Are one or two multiple-choice questions enough to give you confidence that your student has definitively learned a mathematical concept or reading skill?

As W. James Popham, an international expert on assessment and accountability and former president of the American Educational Research Association, points out in his book “Transformative Assessment,” these tests are comparative, and not intended to determine student success or quality of teaching. To make instructionally valid inferences, the test would need to include questions that measure a student's ability to use a specific skill, and ask enough questions to provide proof of that ability to the teachers, students and parents. For the test to be used to inform instructional quality or student intervention, the STAAR/EOC test would need to be four or five times longer than it is. STAAR/EOC cannot tell you what a student has learned.

The importance of well-informed parents

Unfortunately, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. When the state over-emphasizes the importance of a test by attaching high stakes to its results, then schools and the general public are encouraged to attach significance to the data that is not appropriate.

Parental involvement in a student’s academic career is imperative to student success. I applaud McHenry’s attempt to involve parents in the conversation around their students’ academic achievements, but he’s unintentionally leading parents to consider the same falsehood that has been passed on to justify spending nearly $100 million per year on the development of these tests instead of appropriating additional funds to public school districts.

Parents must be involved in their children’s education, but that should be through partnerships with the teachers and schools that interact with those children on a daily basis. In fact, if parents pay the majority of their attention to a STAAR score or the upcoming A-F grade the state will assign their child’s school in the coming years, those parents will be less informed about the quality of instruction their child is actually receiving.

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