The STAAR reading test: Cruel and unusual punishment

Photo by Tim Lewis

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishment” shall not be inflicted on our nation’s citizens. However, I am here today to deliver the unfortunate news that on April 11, thousands of fifth graders across Texas will be subjected to a torture so cruel and unusual that the Texas Education Agency should be found guilty of a crime. What I’m referring to is a punishment known by an acronym that instills fear in the hearts of all teachers and students who hear it: STAAR.

For those of you unfamiliar with the behemoth that is standardized testing in public education, STAAR stands for the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness. Beginning in third grade, students are tested yearly in an effort to measure their proficiency in core academic subjects. It’s a noble goal. Of course, schools want their students to make measurable academic growth. However, when it comes to assessing a student’s growth and ability in reading, the STAAR completely misses the mark.

Let’s start by examining the passages that are included on the reading STAAR. Despite Texas’s rapidly changing demographics, the STAAR is biased towards a particular type of student: one who is white, middle class or above, and whose native language is English.

One passage on the fifth grade reading test from 2017 told the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition from a dog’s perspective. Yes, you read that right. Students who likely barely know who these explorers were are now expected to read a story about them from the perspective of an ANIMAL. This passage could be confusing for any student, but for English Language Learners and students who don’t have a working knowledge of American history, this is a recipe for disaster.

Why is this passage so concerning? Because it’s the unfortunate truth that many elementary schools in Texas have all but abandoned social studies instruction. This is especially true in “low-performing” and under-resourced areas that primarily serve low-income, minority students. Because those schools face more pressure from their school districts and the state, many of them have a single-minded obsession with getting kids to pass the STAAR at any cost. Social studies, recess, and any semblance of the arts have flown out the window because passing the STAAR has become the only marker of student success. This “drill and kill” test prep instruction that sacrifices other content areas leaves students unprepared for the history-related texts that often appear on the STAAR.

Another passage, “Pucker Up Time in Eau Claire,” was an informational text that was paired with a poem about the obscure and extremely Caucasian pastime of cherry pit spitting. Many minority students don’t understand what a cherry pit is and why people would make a competition of spitting them. Imagine my distress when, during our mock STAAR, I watched one of my English Language Learners spend over 10 minutes valiantly trying to look up “pit spit” in the dictionary. He was using a strategy he had been taught, but he had no idea that it wouldn’t work in this instance. As long as the STAAR is written with white, middle-class students in mind, the majority of minority students served by public schools will continue to struggle with this test.

Finally, the passages aren’t even written on grade level. Take a minute to let the insanity of that sink in. The assessment designed to TEST FIFTH GRADERS ON THEIR READING SKILLS isn’t even written at a level meant for them. A study from Texas A&M University–Commerce found that with the exception of the eighth grade test, all of the passages on the STAAR reading exams were written at least two grade levels above the grade level being tested. That is absolutely absurd.

While teachers are hopeful that Texas will eventually reduce its obsession with high-stakes testing, I remain concerned and convinced that we are doing our students a disservice by subjecting them to this cruel and unusual punishment. For the sake of our children, our state must make drastic changes to the STAAR itself and to our culture of public education.