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Parents Sue Texas Education Agency Over STAAR Exams

A backlash against this year’s STAAR exams escalated Monday when a group of parents sued the state in an attempt to keep schools from using 2016 test scores to rate students.

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A backlash against this year’s STAAR exams escalated Monday when a group of parents sued the state in an attempt to keep schools from using 2016 test scores to rate students — including deciding whether students should advance to the next grade or attend summer school.

The lawsuit, filed against the Texas Education Agency in Travis County district court, argues that this year’s scores are invalid because the exams were not administered under parameters laid out in House Bill 743. The legislation, passed last year with bipartisan support, requires the state to design STAAR exams so that a majority of elementary and middle school students can complete them within a certain period of time (two hours for thirdthrough fifth-graders and three hours for sixth- through eighth-graders.)

The law was set to take effect during the 2015-16 school year, but the education agency has taken a phased-in compliance approach. Fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests administered this spring were revamped to comply with the law, but the rest of the exams were not.

“TEA will gather data during the spring 2016 administrations to determine how to adjust the remaining grades 3-8 assessments to meet the testing time requirements of HB 743,” according to the agency’s website. “The remaining redesigned grades 3-8 assessments will be administered beginning in spring 2017.”

Spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe declined to comment late Monday, saying the education agency hadn't yet been served with the lawsuit. 

“Despite knowing that the assessments did not comply with statute, and despite a lead time of over nine months to comply, the TEA failed and refused to develop assessments that comply with the statute,” according to Monday’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of four parents from Houston, Wimberley, Austin and Orangefield, who are members of a grassroots group called The Committee to Stop STAAR.

"As a result, approximately 2 [million] Texas students were administered illegal assessments. The results of these illegal assessments are now being used to enact punitive measures against students, teachers and schools across the state.”

Scott Placek, the lead attorney on the case, said at a Monday news conference that the parents decided to sue last week after Education Commissioner Mike Morath told The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith in an interview that the agency still was planning to only scrap scores from more than 14,000 STAAR exams affected by a computer glitch.

Despite numerous other reported problems, Morath has said there is not enough evidence to exclude all other exams from the state’s accountability system, although he said the agency is still looking into the issue.

In a letter to Morath this month, the Texas Association of School Administrators outlined dozens of issues districts had reported with this year’s STAAR administration, including inaccurate scoring and tests being shipped to the wrong location.

This is the first school year that New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service developed and administered the STAAR exam after the state scrapped its longtime contract with London-based Pearson, which had held the contract since Texas began requiring state student assessments in the 1980s. ETS is known for administering the graduate school admissions test, known as the GRE.

The Committee to Stop STAAR has raised more than $20,000 online to help fund its legal efforts. The Houston Federation of Teachers provided a matching grant. 

"Donors to the campaign are a diverse group of parents, grandparents, teachers and concerned citizens from around the state who demand action after the TEA ignored the common sense reforms that many felt they had won during last year’s legislative session," according to a news release. "Fundraising began on March 30, 2016—the same week as the first administration of this year’s STAAR."

Disclosure: Educational Testing Service, the Texas Association of School Administrators and Pearson have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here

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