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Law Limits Standardized Tests, but Not Prep Work

House Bill 5, which reduced standardized testing in public high schools, also included a provision aimed at easing the pressure of high-stakes exams for students in lower grades. But it may not be having the intended effect.

A student works on math problems in Keith Marquez's summer school geometry class at McAllum High School in Austin, Texas, Jul. 31, 2013.

When Texas legislators passed a law in 2013 that sharply reduced standardized testing for public high school students, they included a provision aimed at easing the pressure of high-stakes exams for students in lower grades as well.

But a year later, the provision that was written to curb the time educators spent preparing students for standardized tests instead of teaching may not have had the intended effect.

“The change in law was well intentioned, but there is still constant test prep going on,” said Stacey Amick, a parent of two children in the Lewisville Independent School District near Dallas. “But I can’t fault the teachers or the schools for doing it. I don’t know a way around it for them.”

Passed amid outcry from parents and educators about the focus on standardized testing, House Bill 5 limited the number of benchmark exams — tests that gauge student progress ahead of standardized tests — that districts can administer in third through 12th grades.

But the law restricts the practice only at the district level, leaving a loophole for individual campuses to require more in an effort to familiarize students with test-taking strategies and to boost their performance. That means that even as districts comply with the law and keep the number of full-length benchmark exams at two, campuses may continue to focus on test preparation with shorter practice exams taking place as frequently as twice a week.

A newsletter received by parents at an Austin Independent School District elementary school in March is among various examples of such approaches collected by The Texas Tribune. It informs parents that instead of their weekly spelling test, elementary students would begin a “STAAR boot camp” every Friday to prepare for the state exams known by that acronym. Paul Cruz, the Austin school district’s interim superintendent, said the district left it to teachers and campus principals to determine the kinds of “short-cycle quizzes” to give to gauge student progress.

“We do think assessment is valuable so that we can make sure that students are learning and meeting expectations,” Cruz said. “But for us, most important is that we all know and understand that we need to maximize instructional time. Yes, assessing student learning has a place in that, but it is really about how we can make adjustments to a student’s learning plan in real time so that they are learning the concepts for that particular grade level.”

The new law restricting benchmark exams had not affected district policy, Cruz said, because the district already required only two midyear full-length tests. He said those assessments were intended for the teachers and parents to keep track of their students’ academic progress.

“It’s not for administering a test to administer a test,” he said. “It’s making sure there are learning opportunities for students if they are not demonstrating proficiency.”

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat and author of the measure limiting benchmark tests, said his office continued to hear complaints from public school parents about the heavy emphasis on test preparation over instruction. He said he would propose further legislation during the 2015 session if it became clear that the limits on districtwide exams had resulted in more “mini-benchmark” exams at the campus level.

But even with tighter restrictions on benchmark testing, Amick said she believed that the emphasis on test preparation would continue until state policy changed to require fewer state standardized exams in younger grades because of the pressure they placed on school districts.

“When you are talking about a benchmark, I would think what they had in mind was an official practice test where you pretend you are taking the STAAR,” she said. “But what’s happening is that the kids are getting all kinds of work sheets and packets all the time. My daughter gets a packet full of problems on it; she brings it back for a grade. That’s not a benchmark, but it’s still practicing for a test.”

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