The controversial implementation of this year’s STAAR exam amid the pandemic was interrupted recently by a glitch that caused Texas schools to delay the assessment. The state should now consider whether their significant financial investments have produced an improved assessment or an antiquated system that needs improvements.
Texas alone has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on standardized testing during the past few years. Despite all of this investment of taxpayer dollars, most standardized tests such as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) look almost exactly as they did 50 years ago —- paper-based and multiple choice questions. Texas is shifting to computer-based assessments over the next few years, but that does not necessarily mean the test will be more responsive to context or useful for teachers.
The STAAR is also limited in its responsiveness to Texas demographics. State assessments created by testing companies are produced for large populations of students. However, such tests are not individualized by state, region, shifting demographics, or the many cultural identities and experiences of students.
Surely, most Texans would agree that Texas is not California and would like a Texas-centric test. State policymakers should not leave a flawed test in place to prop up a system of accountability. Texas is a large state that should leverage its bargaining power with testing companies to make significant improvements to the STAAR exam.
Lawmakers would be wise to be concerned too because schools serving higher proportions of students of color and immigrant students may find more of their students struggling to make sense of test questions.
Federal requirements contribute to the production of outdated tests, because assessments must be fragmented into core subject areas. Assessing a student’s ability to read, write and calculate is important, but families and educators also care deeply about other schooling outcomes that could be tested, such as students’ critical thinking, scientific literacy, civic engagement, and ability to integrate knowledge from multiple subject areas.
Perhaps current investments would be worth it if teachers could quickly gain insights into student areas of growth. Unfortunately, whether STAAR is taken on a computer or on paper, test results do not reach teachers for months. Any data that might be actionable is, at best, outdated or, at worst, irrelevant.
The STAAR exam’s shortcomings come along with additional unintended consequences — student anxiety, teaching to the test, time lost to test preparation and benchmarking, and uninspiring working conditions for teachers and principals. To make matters worse, two decades of state accountability using standardized tests have not led to any closure of achievement gaps between low-income students and their affluent peers.
State policymakers should demand an assessment that uses innovative testing approaches and can be immediately useful to teachers. Moving forward, assessments should be computer-based and adaptive — which means that computers automatically adjust the difficultly of questions based on students’ prior answers. Adaptive assessments can provide teachers with immediate insights into each student’s misconceptions. Then, teachers can reteach or share information with families so they can work together.
Adaptive tests are already offered in many districts in Texas through NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress. Adaptive tests can be shorter, given multiple times per year, and detached from any high stakes. They are especially beneficial as schools seek to restart after school closures.
Texas could also adopt performance-based tests that are cross-disciplinary and assess more complex tasks than traditional standardized assessments. For example, Stanford University researchers have promoted performance assessments in science that emphasize students revisiting and deepening their understanding of core concepts across grades and disciplines. These tests assess critical thinking and interdisciplinary skills that students will need in a Texas economy that is increasingly drawing in high-tech jobs.
The current system of testing in Texas is outdated, costly, does not produce timely and actionable data, and has not led to improved outcomes. Texas can and should be a national leader in ensuring students receive state-of-the-art tests that aid schools, teachers and families in supporting ambitious learning outcomes for students.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.