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Study Panel Not Ready to Ditch STAAR Testing

Three days after the state had to scrap scores from this year's standardized testing of school kids, a special panel studying testing says it won't recommend getting rid of STAAR tests.

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Despite widespread frustration over mishaps with the administration of this year's STAAR tests, a special panel studying Texas' standardized testing regime says it won't propose scrapping the exams in the near future.

At its Monday meeting, the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability instead agreed to recommend that the Legislature explore alternatives to the test, meaning any big changes could be years away. The panel also will encourage lawmakers to ensure high school end-of-course exams align with national college readiness measures, such as the SAT and ACT. 

The meeting was the panel's sixth, and last, opportunity to decide what proposals to include in its report to the governor and Legislature, due by Sept. 1. The 15-member panel of school administrators, legislators, advocates and businesspeople spent Monday trying to whittle down a list of 53 ideas. By the end of the day, it had reached consensus on several proposals, though facilitator Juli Fellows said she would need time to review her notes and determine just how many the committee had passed.

The panel, which was not originally scheduled to meet in June, convened because it needed more time to complete work on its recommendations after its May meeting, according to the commission's agenda.

“I think it’s been a great process to get all the information,” said Chairman Andrew Kim, who is superintendent of Comal ISD. “I think it’s been a daunting task to go in and synthesize to the level that we need to make recommendations.”

The panel’s debate highlighted the discord surrounding high-stakes testing. Administration of the March tests was marked by technical glitches across the state, and that was just the beginning of the problems. On Thursday, Eanes ISD told principals that Educational Testing Services — the company that took over Texas testing this year — had lost some of the district's tests, a claim ETS denied. On Friday, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that 5th and 8th graders’ STAAR scores won’t be used to decide whether they advance to the next grade level.

In a blog post on Monday, Morath wrote that he made the call because of score delivery delays from ETS that left some parents uncertain whether they would need to enroll their child in summer school. He also said that the results will still be used to formulate accountability ratings for schools and districts. 

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chair of the Senate Committee on Education and a commission member, had strong words for the administration of STAAR this year. “It’s been a total disaster,” he said in the panel discussion. “I think everyone agrees with that.”

Still, the panel did not vote to recommend getting rid of STAAR. Instead, it will likely recommend the Legislature conduct additional study of diagnostic testing options that allow teachers to get information about student performance throughout the year.

The panel also voted to recommend limiting state testing to fewer standards and increase local control of writing assessments.

Panel members broadly agreed on the need to ensure that school ratings, set to be assigned on an A-F scale by the 2017-2018 school year, are more heavily influenced by student improvement. Taylor said he worried the current system would allow schools in wealthier areas to receive a grade of A without actually improving student outcomes, while stigmatizing schools in poorer areas.

The accountability issue, however, proved difficult to navigate with questions unsettled about which tests Texas should be using. 

Holly Eaton, director of professional development and advocacy at the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, has attended all of the committee's meetings. She viewed the committee's consensus on tying the end-of-course tests to national readiness standards as its most significant proposal.

"When you’re dealing with an issue this complex, although a group could come to consensus on general concepts, when it comes to developing specific recommendations, it’s extremely difficult, and that’s been their struggle," Eaton said.

Granger ISD Superintendent Randy Willis, who sat in on Monday’s meeting, said he and fellow superintendents have been closely watching the panel's work to see if it will propose changes leading to greater local control. He attributed the current anti-testing furor to years of excessive federal involvement in local schools.

“[Washington] D.C. tries to micromanage the state, and the state tries to micromanage the district,” Willis said. “This is a storm that’s been brewing for a long time.”

At a final meeting on July 27, the members hope to finalize the draft proposal before it is submitted to the governor and Legislature. Then, it will be up to elected officials to enact any statutory changes the panel recommends. 

Theresa Treviño, president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, said the panel's reluctance to pursue big changes, especially on standardized testing, left her frustrated. Ahead of Monday's meeting, she told the Tribune she was hopeful that the committee's work would yield "more than a tweak." By the afternoon, she was feeling less optimistic about the final report.

"I'm worried it's going to be a tweak," she said.

Disclosure: The Texas Classroom Teachers Association and Educational Testing Service have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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