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The Call To Reform STAAR Testing Growing Louder

State lawmakers are preparing to file a slew of bills that could change the way students are tested and the way school districts are graded. The lightening rod is the new STAAR end-of-course exams. As part of KERA’s American Graduate program, we visited the Arlington school district where there’s a loud cry for reform.

Taylor Griffin feels like she’s always preparing for a test or taking one. We caught up with the Arlington High School sophomore at lunchtime after she’d spent the morning in final exams.

“It’s really stressful,” said Taylor as she finished a plate of Mexican food. “You have to study a lot and it’s not fun,” she said with a sigh.

And these routine tests given by her teachers are only the beginning. Taylor and every other Texas high school student will take 15 STAAR exams over three years.

STAAR is the new statewide testing program replacing TAKS.

STAAR tests are given at the end of major high school courses in math, English, science and social studies. They’re tougher than TAKS, there are more of them and Taylor has to make a minimum score on each to graduate.

Taylor used to ace the TAKS, but says she’s not doing as well on STAAR.

“It kind of upsets me. It made me feel good when I got good grades on the TAKS test. Now with the STAAR I don’t, like, get commended any more. It’s weird,” she said.

She admits that lack of recognition for doing well discourages her.

“Yeah, I’m trying really hard,” she says, “but it’s not going how it used to.”

The concern that even good students like Taylor will lose interest in school is part of the reason Arlington Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos hopes the legislature and the Texas Education Agency will overhaul STAAR.

“The students can become demoralized when you’re navigating through 15 different assessments to obtain a high school diploma,” he said adding they have to successfully complete courses and local tests at the same time.

Last year when STAAR exams were given for the first time the standards for passing were lower than they will be when the tests are completely phased in. Even so, more than 1800 Arlington freshman failed the English part of the exam. That’s almost half of the class. Hundreds more failed other parts of the test. Now they have to retake those tests until they pass them or they won’t graduate.

The same scenario is being played out in districts across the state.

“What is the point of the exams? That’s the question,” said Cavazos who doesn’t object to the tests if they’re used “diagnostically” to pinpoint student strengths and weaknesses.

“There’s more to the school experience than a state test and I think we have to be mindful of that,” said Cavazos.

“Students experience school through a number of ways: through career programs, through fine arts, through extracurricular activities, through electives. So where does the other part of the school experience that we know is very significant for student success, where is that in the mix?”

State Representative Diane Patrick, a former Arlington school board member and educator agrees, the system needs a fix.

“I’ve heard from parents and teachers and principals and superintendents all across the state. We need to tap the breaks and work this out better so we can be sure there is fair implementation,” said Patrick.

Patrick isn’t divulging many details but says she plans to introduce legislation that could reduce the number of STAAR tests and relax the requirement stating students must pass all of them to earn their diplomas.

Revamping the system can’t come soon enough for Nikki Griffin, Taylor’s mom, who says she has a fourth grader as well as Taylor.

“The benchmarks in those (elementary) grades, if they don’t pass them, they don’t promote. Or they have to take the tests in summer school until they do pass them,” she said, adding, “It is very stressful.”

There’s that word again- stressful. It’s hard to have a conversation about the STAAR tests without hearing it.

Taylor’s mother says she wishes Texas could return to the good old days when the goal of tests was to find out what students had learned. She feels the new testing program sometimes punishes students instead.

Coming Friday: Education Commissioner Michael Williams shares ideas for reforming STAAR testing and changing the way schools are graded.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.