Senate Education Committee investigates low high school performance on STAAR exam


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Senate education panel spent hours Tuesday maligning the state's standardized testing system, even questioning whether it's appropriate to ask youngsters across sun-kissed South Texas math problems about the possibility of frost forming on their sidewalks.

By the end of the meeting, it seemed the exam stood only a snowball's chance in Brownville of surviving the legislative session without a major overhaul.

Members of the state Senate Education Committee demanded answers on the exam regime known as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, particularly asking why so many high school students are failing it.

Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who chairs the committee, said testing "is the most important issue in front of us this session."

"We're obviously going to go back and make some changes," he said.

STAAR was passed into law in 2009 and is designed to be tough and get progressively more difficult through the years. But it has sparked heavy criticism since students began actually taking it last school year.

Parents, teachers, school administrators and community and education activists packed a Senate hearing to complain about the exam and suggest alternatives, and members of the House Public Education Committee also discussed ways to remake it during a separate meeting Tuesday.

High school students who began ninth grade last year must pass 15 STAAR tests in different subject areas in order to graduate. But thousands of the state's 5 million-plus students failed at least one of the exams during their first year in high school. Even after retakes, only about 73 percent passed the English I writing exam, and 81 percent passed English I reading.

Patrick noted that failure rates are even higher among students from economically disadvantaged families.

"Either teachers are doing a poor job teaching or the tests aren't reflective of what needs to be learned. It's either or. Which is it?" Patrick asked experts from the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public schools statewide.

Gloria Zyskowski, the agency's director of student assessment, said historically whenever Texas has adopted a new standardized testing system, scores have initially declined but eventually recovered.

"It's an adjustment to the type of program STAAR was designed to be," Zyskowski said. She said the test represented "a shift in cognitive complexity toward 21st century workforce readiness."

Exactly what lawmakers will do to revamp STAAR will dominate debate until the end of the legislative session in May. But several bills so far seek to at least scrap a requirement that high students' scores on STAAR count toward 15 percent of their final grades in core classes. Other proposed legislation would dramatically cut the number of tests students take.

Patrick acknowledged that lawmakers approved the rules governing STAAR, only to come back and grill officials implementing them.

"We can blame the Legislature," he said. "If we have fouled this up, we need to get this right."

But other senators noted that even if the Legislature ultimately modifies STAAR, some current ninth- and 10th-graders may still be required to adhere to the past standards.

"We need to make sure we're not setting our students and our teachers up for failure," said Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat. "We've got a colossal failure on our hands in terms of how this was rolled out and in terms of accomplishing what we wanted to achieve."

San Antonio Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte even objected to a STAAR word problem asking students to imagine ice forming on the ground — saying it would be difficult to picture for students in Brownsville on the Mexican border, where winters are very mild.

"It's not just math, it's the prose in front of the math," Van de Putte said of the problem.

But Donna Campbell, a Republican and physician from nearby New Braunfels, said the questions are fair because they're based on science, regardless of whether students are familiar with the climate.

"It's a measure of something. It's factual," Campbell said. "It doesn't matter if we live in Texas or in the remote areas of Siberia."