Thursday, October 18, 2012

To STAAR or not to STAAR?

Published in the Cross Timbers Gazette.  Click HERE for the link.

My kids walked into the house one day after school.  As soon as they started talking, it was clear that something drastic had occurred.

“We have to eat protein at breakfast tomorrow, Mom!  I mean, seriously, we have to.” This came from the kid who begs (mostly in vain) for sugar cereal every morning.

“I hope we’re not going anywhere tonight.  We have to get at least 8 hours of sleep, preferably 9.”  This came from another kid who begs (mostly in vain) for bedtime extensions every night.

Later that afternoon, a panicked voice exclaimed, “Nooooooo!  We can’t be out of pencils!”

And then during dinner, which we ate a little later than usual, my newly sleep-obsessed kid looked frantically at the clock and asked, “What time is it?  What time is it?  We have to go to bed early, remember?”

Things took an even stranger turn when I walked into the kitchen and found my seventh grader (the most laid-back kid on this planet) carefully gluing a partially-detached label from a used water bottle back into place.  Naturally, I questioned his bizarre behavior.

“We have to bring water bottles to school tomorrow that haven’t been tampered with.  We don’t have any new ones, so I’m improvising.”

“Tampering, you mean.”

“Yeah, but at least it looks new.  Plus I won’t put anything but water in it.”

These were definitely not my kids.  An alien takeover came to mind. 

Our family had recently moved from out of state into the LISD boundaries and this was our first experience with the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).  State-mandated tests were nothing new to my kids, but the difference between the two states in both preparation and actual test-taking procedures was fairly drastic.  In short, LISD’s approach seemed a bit over the top.

I had never seen my kids (or their teachers) so stressed out, and I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it.  How much of this undue pressure was truly necessary in order for my children to be successful?  It didn’t seem ideal.

It compelled me, however, to reflect back on my days of teaching English and German (in a different state). At the time, I appreciated being giving the freedom, within reasonable boundaries, to decide what to teach and how to teach it.  I’d even like to think that most of my students came away from my classes loving (well, at least tolerating) Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird and being able to ask where the nearest restroom is.  In German.

But how well did I prepare my students for tests like the SAT and ACT, or for college?  That would be hard to say, since my students’ knowledge wasn’t measured in any standardized format.  That wasn’t ideal, either.

As a parent, I want my kids to be well-prepared for college entrance exams and college.  So what are the optimal methods to meet this end?

Currently, most states – including Texas -- have decided that annual (one-time), standardized high-stakes testing is the answer.

It sounds fine in theory, but I can’t turn on the news without hearing about teacher pay being linked to test performance, systematic cheating (by teachers), schools being closed, teacher strikes, and administrators being fired.  All due to controversies surrounding high-stakes testing.

Most importantly, what happens when students don’t pass these tests?  Are these students given the resources they need to fill in their learning gaps?  Are they able to move from being “behind” to “catching up” as a result of these yearly assessments, or do they just fall through the cracks?

By all accounts, the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), which replaces the TAKS beginning this school year, holds students to a more rigorous academic standard than its predecessor.  This means that intensified pressure will be placed on administration, teachers and students to perform well.

As a parent, the most valuable way for me to help my children be successful is to receive frequent, consistent feedback from their teachers. For me, a yearly standardized assessment is too infrequent and loses most of its efficacy.

I am encouraged by the recent news that, thanks to the efforts of numerous educators and parents in this area, LISD applied for and was accepted into Texas High Performance Schools Consortium.  This is a group of 23 districts across the state that will be “collaborating to redesign education in Texas.” 

According to the district’s website, members of this consortium believe that “public schools must transform education and that accountability must be beyond a one-day high stakes test.”  Hats off to LISD, educators and parents in the community who are working diligently to help our children best prepare for their futures.

I’m interested to learn the results of these efforts as they unfold.  In the meantime, I’ll stock up on breakfast protein foods, pencils, water bottles and smiles.  I’ve discovered that smiling helps calm nerves, both of the human and alien variety.

What do you think?  What have been your experiences with standardized testing?  Time to weigh in.

2 comments:

  1. I've enjoyed reading several of your articles on Deseret News. Today I read this article and incidentally today was the day my child's STAAR testing results came home. I mean the results from the first ever STAAR test of about 10 months ago. I won't start, but I'm glad to know that other places you have lived are more reasonable in their approach to standardized testing. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

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    1. I know, right? I had to take a few deep breaths when I opened those same test results and realized how long ago the test was taken. Thanks for your note & wishes for my recovery -- I get better every day!

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