Research showing that reading passages on Texas standardized tests were years above grade level inspired calls for action this legislative session.
Lawmakers responded by passing a bill to study the matter further.
An amendment in the school finance reform bill HB 3 directs the Texas Education Agency to contract with a public university to independently review the reading level of the standardized tests for 2019 and 2020.
San Antonio Democrats Sen. José Menéndez and Rep. Diego Bernal filed companion bills that would have done more. They proposed a hold on school closings and other consequences of poor test results until experts determined the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness are on grade level.
But after conservative advocates opposed the bills, lawmakers instead decided to conduct the study while keeping the consequences in place.
Kara Belew with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation said she’s glad lawmakers followed her recommendation.
“A pause in the accountability system is a pause in our children learning to read,” said Belew. “Some people say that the accountability system and the STAAR tests are high stakes… but the high stakes are that child graduating high school unable to read.”
Menéndez said suggesting a temporary pause on closing schools and holding students back a grade doesn’t mean he’s against holding schools accountable.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Menéndez said. “As a parent, as a policymaker, as a taxpayer I want our education system to be the best in the nation, but that also doesn’t mean that I want it to be unfair or cruel to students.”
Still, Menéndez said he’s optimistic that the tests will be changed if the study uncovers a problem.
“I know that politically sometimes it's difficult when you have groups pushing or saying that you’re trying to water down the standards,” Menéndez said.“But I feel good that the transformation that we’re doing will improve things to such a degree that I think the momentum will improve the situation as well.”
Bernal also said he believed the study is a step in the right direction.
“My preference would have been a pause on accountability,” Bernal said. “But at the same time, because we’re getting the results in December, in some ways that’s kind of good enough.”
Bernal said that the study will be peer reviewed and presented in public, helping insure the validity of the results and creating pressure for the Texas Education Agency to address problems if need be before students take the tests next spring.
San Antonio mom Lisa Scalf has advocated for reforms to STAAR tests since her son Wes failed the test despite being on the honor roll. She said she’s disappointed the bills temporarily preventing students from being held back a grade because they failed STAAR didn’t make it, but the study is a good start.
“I just want them to fix it going forward,” Scalf said. “And if it does say that the reading passages were not fair, I would like to see those fixed so that it doesn’t affect him going from 8th grade into high school.”
Students are required to pass their STAAR tests in 5th and 8th grade in order to be promoted unless a school committee unanimously votes to override the decision.
Potential Changes to STAAR
Menéndez and Scalf are also pleased with another bill on the governor’s desk, HB 3906.
The bill authored by the chair of the House Public Education Committee, Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), shortens the STAAR tests and splits segments up so they can be taken over multiple days. It also eliminates the standalone writing STAAR tests.
“Gone is the full- day STAAR testing. It’s now broken down into hour long chunks,” Menéndez said. “I think it’s going to end the way the STAAR feels as high pressure and as much of a punitive test as it’s been.”
The readability research also renewed calls to eliminate standardized testing altogether, but Texas is required to have some form of standardized test in order to receive federal education funding. Federal law also requires states to have a school accountability system, but it does not require states to implement the consequences tied to standardized tests outlined under Texas law.