STAAR Almost Over, but Debate Isn't

For 2.5 million Texas public school students, the STAAR exams are almost over. But for elected officials, educators and other members of the education community, wrangling over the rollout of the new tests — and the effects of standardized testing in the classroom — has just begun.

Anxiety among parents, teachers and students over the new tests and a public call to action from Education Commissioner Robert Scott has ensured that holding schools and students accountable will be a hot topic during the upcoming legislative session. But the conversation will get started well before then.

Expect more stories about confusion over testing instructions as schools go through the first round of testing — like the one out of Houston’s Clear Creek Independent School District, where more than 50 students wrote their essays on the wrong page of their tests and whose teachers had to then recopy them — to generate worry over cheating and whether districts were adequately prepared to administer the new exams. An analysis from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of 70,000 public schools across the country that found questionable scores in Dallas and Houston districts may fuel the conversation, but the Texas Education Agency has already cast doubt on the paper’s report and said that it won’t be conducting an investigation.

The State Board of Education will take up the topic of standardized testing at its April meeting. At its January gathering, Scott made the first of several powerful remarks noting his concerns about the state of standardized testing in Texas, which he said had become “a perversion of its original intent." This time around might provide an opportunity for the commissioner to elaborate, scale back or amplify them after schools have administered the first of the exams.

Don’t be surprised if by May 1 nearly all Texas school districts have signed up to defer the so-called 15 percent rule, either. As of late March, 600 have decided to hold off on making high school student scores on the statewide test 15 percent of their final grades, a concession that the Texas Education Agency made after uproar from parents, teachers and lawmakers in February.

With the May 29 primary date set, April will also be an important month for candidates hoping to oust incumbents on pro-public-education messages. Across the state, a handful of Republicans are running — some for open seats — on platforms that focus on the state of Texas public schools. The Lufkin ISD school board president is challenging incumbent Marva Beck for her Waco-based House district, James Wilson is opposing Debbie Riddle for her Houston area district, and SBOE member Marsha Farney and Coppell ISD school board member Bennett Ratliff are each running for open spots. 

However they turn out, the primaries will be the first critical indicator of the public’s reaction to the budget cuts passed in 2011 and could help foretell the results of some general election contests, too.