Texas taking the ‘standard’ out of standardized testing

Photo by Shannan Muskopf

When STAAR End of Course test results arrive in late May, some high school seniors stand at their teachers’ doors in nervous anticipation. They are painfully aware that their scores will determine whether or not they can walk across the graduation stage with their friends.

The unlucky ones feel their hearts sink as they read the dreaded words: “Did not meet expectations.”

With those words comes confusion.

“What grade did I actually get?”

“How far away was I?”

“What did I actually need to pass?”

What do you need to pass indeed?

To say that Texas’ standardized testing system, STAAR, has been embattled lately is putting it mildly. Last year’s massive statewide testing irregularities led to a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency itself, the eventual scrapping of the STAAR scores for fifth and eighth grade, and a $20.5 million fine levied by TEA against ETS – the testing company that both writes and grades STAAR. Texas is in the midst of a public relations nightmare, as parents of young students keep their kids out of school during STAAR testing because they conscientiously object to their children taking a test that many consider discriminatory, unfair and useless.

But while the state may throw out the STAAR scores for fifth- and eighth-graders, and elementary school students may not even show up to school on test day, for high school students there is no opting out.

If you want your high school diploma in the state of Texas, you must pass your STAAR End of Course test. And every student in Texas must pass the exact same test, no matter what. Even if you’ve only been speaking English for a few years. Even if you are dyslexic and words dance around on the page. Even if you are legally blind and cannot physically read the test. It doesn’t matter – you must take the test.

For these students, the state provides “reasonable” accommodations. A larger font size. Parts of test questions read aloud. These accommodations are meant to ensure the student is tested on the content of the exam, not on the formatting.

But administering accommodations is a tricky business, and to simplify things, this year TEA provided all accommodations through an online testing platform. Accommodations can be individualized for students’ need — but the test itself remains unchanged.

That’s the point of a standardized testing system after all. It’s standard. Every student must take the exact same test and meet the exact same standards.

Except something kind of funny happened. As this year’s group of high school students looked at their score reports and learned whether or not they would be graduating, their teachers noticed something a little... odd. The students who took the paper version of the English 2 STAAR test passed with a raw score of 41. The students who took the online version? The special education and dyslexic students? They needed a 42 to pass.

The STAAR test determines whether or not a student has met its standards by assessing students first with a “raw score.” If the student got 20 questions correct, their raw score would be a 20. This raw score is then normed into what is called a “scale score,” which is used to adjust for the difficulty of a particular year’s test. If a test is really hard, the passing scale score will correlate to a lower raw score; if it’s easier, vice versa.

But this year, the very first year that students with certain accommodations had no choice but to take this online-only STAAR test, we had two different passing scale scores on the same test for the same cohort of students. So two students, in the same year, and in the same grade, got the same number of questions right — except some of them passed and some of them did not.

Some, like our high school senior, learned that because he requires accommodations on his test, he had to get one more question right than everybody else.

TEA, why were our students with disabilities held to a higher passing standard than their peers? Are you implying that receiving medically necessary accommodations, such as reading in a different colored font, confers an educational advantage? Our students with disabilities do not need the passing standard of these tests raised higher — or lower. They may need additional support taking your test, but that does not mean they are incapable of meeting your expectations.