#ReshapeSTAAR: My Quest to Change Standardized Testing in Texas

In 2011, I made one of the hardest decisions I have ever made:  I resigned from my full time teaching position at the beginning of the spring semester.  I had made it through a very difficult fall semester with a very unsupportive administration (I had never known what people meant when they said that until I experienced it firsthand), and I had every intention of making it through the end of the school year.  However, on the first day of classes, an assistant principal came in for a walk-through observation during my morning class.  I convinced myself that our follow-up meeting would be positive, and that I would receive constructive criticism and that the spring semester would be different from the fall.  But when he asked why I “basically wasted the first seven minutes of instruction” by passing out stickers to my students, I knew I was done and my decision to resign was solidified.

I had established a tradition of passing out stickers at the beginning of every month to celebrate a fresh beginning.  It’s inexpensive but highly effective.  By December, students who sometimes refuse to do their work are often the first to ask if I have a new sticker for them.  I love when former students stop by just to say “Happy March!” or ask for a sticker.  I will always believe that building teacher-student relationships should be emphasized before focusing on learning or language objectives, state standards, TEKS, or whatever your state calls them.  And I certainly have never believed nor will ever believe that focus should be placed on standardized testing.

After my resignation, I did not accept another full time teaching position until the fall of 2012.  I was extremely excited to start over after having just completed my Master’s in Teaching.  I knew what kind of classroom culture I wanted to create and knew the Title 1 school I was hired at would provide a daily challenge.  Unfortunately, I was still not adequately prepared for the beast that was (is) the STAAR test that year.  I had 187 10th grade students on my roster, and the two other teachers on my team had about 150 each.  We were charged with preparing our students for a test that we had only field test questions and data to rely on for study materials.  This was also the year that the “15 Tests to Graduate Rule” was being enforced.  I could not understand how the State Legislature had allowed something like that to pass as law.  I, along with thousands of angry parents, teachers, and students, marched at the Texas Capitol during Spring Break and demanded change.  The “STAAR Wars” had started.  I called and emailed State Representatives.  My students wrote letters to both Dan Patrick and Kirk Watson, and explained what standardized testing was doing to their educational experience.  Our scores were dismal to the say the least, but I assured my students it did not reflect what they were capable of doing or learning.

That summer, we experienced a small victory.  By an overwhelming vote, both the House and Senate agreed to decrease the number of tests to graduate from 15 to 5.  Not a perfect solution by any means, but still, progress had been made and it was inspiring to know that more change could happen if teachers, students, and parents kept fighting.

In the spring of 2014, the Senate Education Committee convened to discuss the STAAR test.  I took an entire day off of school and sat through almost 6 hours of testimony from the TEA, ATPE, TAMSA and other education stake holders.  I remember reeling in my seat when Dr. Cloudt of TEA insinuated that teachers needed to “change their instruction for the STAAR test”.  Sound educational research has always proven that teaching to a test will only result in students being able to pass the test, but will not result in real learning.  I stayed to testify and let them know that thousands of students in Texas were being required to test and retest for hours without success, and that the test was an unfair graduation requirement.  I was hoping for changes to be implemented for the upcoming school year but nothing happened.

This past fall, in October of 2014, I took another afternoon off from school and testified before the House Education Committee. I only testified because of what I have witnessed for almost the past three years; the class of 2015 has taken the brunt of the STAAR test madness and the madness must stop.  I did not ask for the STAAR test to be eliminated; I only asked that changes be made specifically to the English 2 STAAR test, and that this particular test not be counted as a graduation requirement. In my testimony, I mentioned watching seniors attend weekly interventions and have their senior year pretty much ruined by the STAAR test.  I also mentioned having multiple conversations with students about how they would drop out if they did not pass the retest in December.

Well, it is now January and we have received the official retest results.  Of the 99 seniors that took the English 1 & 2 STAAR tests in December, only 12 of them did not pass one or more of those tests.  While that is incredibly happy news for our campus, it still made me extremely frustrated.  Of those 12, I know at least 2 that passed the English 2 test but NOT the English 1 test.  So now they have to retake the English 1 test again (some of them for the 8th or 9th time!!!) in the spring and hope that they get the results in time for graduation.  And for what??  To show that they can pass a test that is actually very, very similar to the other test that they took 3-5 times and FINALLY passed in December??  Imagine being one of the students that failed when so many of your friends that were in your intervention group passed, and are now making plans for cap and gown purchases and graduation announcements.  It’s pretty sad that we had to have counselors on hand to deliver the news to the students that did not pass.  It gives just a small glimpse of the emotional damage this test has created for the past three years.

On a side note, if we’re being completely honest, can we truly say that having so many students pass a RETEST (most for a 3rd or 4th time) is a success? These particular students were required to enroll in a class whose sole intention was to prepare them for the STAAR retest.  Daily, I felt sorry for the teacher because the kids HATED the class even though they knew it was for their benefit.  They also had to attend weekly intervention meetings for a total of an hour every week.  Yes, they finally received the direct instruction they needed to help them pass the test, but what did they really, really learn?

I am hoping that when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next week that changes to the STAAR test is one of its primary focuses.  I also hope to see more teachers standing up for their students and testifying either in person or by letter.  I have testified by way of letter or personal appearance 3 times and have never received any negative repercussions.  If anything, I have received support and encouragement.  If a teacher works in a district that discourages their support of what is best for students, I would encourage that teacher to find another district.  As I said in my testimony, changing graduation requirements is not about lowering standards, it’s about doing what’s right for our students, and the STAAR test(s) is NOT right for students.

Video links to my testimony on 10/8/14:

Google Doc of my testimony on 10/8/14: http://goo.gl/VzlbTC