Why We Need House Bill 1164

The following is my testimony given to the Texas House Education Committee on March 24th:

 

I am here in support of HB 1164.  My name is Cynthia Ruiz and I teach high school English is Pflugerville ISD.  I’ve been teaching in Texas public high schools for 11 years, have my Master’s in Teaching, and at the end of this semester I’ll have a total of 18 hours of additional graduate level English.  I’d like to think I’m an expert in my teaching field, but since the implementation of the STAAR test, I’m made to feel otherwise.

 

Just within the past 3 years, I have taught over 460 students and have graded upwards of about 3000 STAAR practice essays, and this is what I’ve learned:  the English 1 & 2 Writing Test are not rigorous, they are ridiculous.

 

Assessing students’ writing ability based on a 26-lined essay is not conducive to effective writing instruction.  26 lined essays focus on form instead of content, and they seriously limit students’ ability to fully express themselves and hinder critical thinking and creativity.  There’s been a lot of talk about students being “college and career” ready, and I seriously doubt that higher-Ed English instructors, whether at community colleges or large universities, use 26-lined essays in their classrooms, so I don’t understand why high school teachers are being forced to prepare kids for a writing test that doesn’t prepare them for college level writing.

 

The writing required by STAAR is also irrelevant.  If you want to be able to hire people that know how to write, you need to let them WRITE, and the topics must be relevant in order for students to ensure student motivation.  This spring’s English 2 STAAR prompt was: “Write an essay stating your position on whether learning always has a positive effect on a person’s life.”  I would rather my students write relevant essays about how they can impact change in their community, or research a topic that is important to them.  I would love to be able to teach them how to write proper emails and cover letters.  I’m embarrassed to say my students today are no where near as familiar with MLA, APA or Chicago writing standards, the cornerstones of formidable writing, as they should be, because I have to spend so much time focusing on STAAR writing.  I feel like I should apologize to professors everywhere for how Texas has been “teaching writing” the past 3 years.

 

Further, the English 1 & 2 Writing tests do not provide valid feedback for teachers or students.  I have with me an example of a score report from the English 1 test administered this past December, and it has ONE LINE of feedback on the essay portion of the test.  It simply says what type of essay it is and what score the student received.  It does not say if the student had a strong thesis statement, enough evidence, or anything else that can be used for remediation.  In a previous testimony I mentioned that this past summer was the first time in two years that we received student essays back from the STAAR test, but even then, the essays had no editing marks or revision suggestions.  I still had to take time to figure out what mistakes my students made in their writing.  If I have to make sense of a students performance on this assessment in order to help them, why can’t I be trusted to come up with the assessment in the first place?

 

It’s a widely known fact Pearson Education hires essay scorers off of Craigslist, and it’s also come to light that scorers can grade up to 100 essays in an hour in order to meet their “quota”.  When I grade practice essays using a rubric to provide feedback for my students, it takes me 7-8 hours for about 120 essays.  I’m not a math teacher, but I find it really hard to believe over 50,000 STAAR essays are being carefully graded between April and the end of May when scores are returned to schools.

 

Why are we placing such high stakes into an exam that Pearson graders merely glance at?  Students write these essays, thinking that whoever grades it is going to look at it with as much attention as their teacher does.  I feel awful knowing that  we have been lying to our students for the past 3 years, and it is time to stop and do what’s right for our kids.

 

I am urging you to rethink the STAAR writing exams.  Please remember that you have hundreds of experts at your fingertips in classrooms across the state who are already working hard every day and do not require a multi-million dollar contract.  We are ready to show you there are more effective, less harmful, and less expensive ways to assess student writing abilities.

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In Response to “Education News”: “Texas Schools and the Slippery Slope of Sen. Seliger’s SB 149” by Donna Garner 2.19.15

After seeing a question posted on KXAN’s Facebook earlier today asking what readers think about SB149, and after reading Donna Howard’s blog post decrying SB 149 about a month ago,  I’ve decided to respond, addressing the issues mentioned in Howard’s post  (and the comments on KXAN’s Facebook feed).  I know, I know, “you’re not supposed to ‘feed the trolls'”, but because I actually testified FOR this bill, I don’t mind writing about it.

SB 149 would allow seniors to graduate from our Texas public schools after taking and failing the STAAR tests multiple times in the past three years.  Some students have taken one STAAR test as many as 7 times, which adds up to about 30-35 hours of testing.  Furthermore, the majority of seniors have actually passed almost all of the STAAR tests, and only lack one or two tests to meet the 5 test requirement for graduation.  The number of students have not passed a single STAAR test is extremely minimal, and most likely those students have other issues (attendance, credits, etc.) that would prevent them from graduating even by committee decision.

As a CURRENT, experienced high school English teacher, I know the majority of seniors only need to pass the English 1 or English 2 STAAR test.  I can tell you that the implementation of these tests was severely flawed.  Teachers who were actually in the classroom during the ’11-12 and ’12-13 school years know that the preparation for the test was inadequate. We were only given field test questions that Pearson had already considered “bad questions” as a basis for our instruction.  Furthermore, when test results were released in ’12-’13 when current seniors were sophomores, we did not receive valid feedback.  This was extremely detrimental to students because we had no way of knowing what specific areas to focus on for remediation.  Students retested that summer and failed, and the cycle continued during every following administration of the STAAR test.  It was not until the Summer of 2014 that schools received any kind of adequate feedback and teachers, like myself, were able to finally TEACH TO THE TEST, and our passing rate for the retest increased substantially in December.

Believe me, classroom teachers care about what we teach and even more about WHO we teach.  Research study upon research study will show that standardized testing should not be the only way student ability/achievement is measured.

Anyone that says the English 1 & 2 STAAR is an OBJECTIVE measurement of student academic progress has obviously not been an English teacher in the past 3 years.  The writing required on the test is SUBJECTIVE, and is supposed to be graded on a rubric that takes into account a variety of measures from mechanics to voice.  However, the process for grading English 1 & 2 tests, to say the least, is a joke.  It is a well-known fact that Pearson hires people from Craigslist to grade the exams.  These people do not have to have a background in English (although SOME do), they just need a Bachelor’s Degree.  How is it okay for someone off of Craigslist to determine a student’s graduation status but not the people that have been working directly with the student for hours upon hours?

Also, former Pearson employees have said that TEA sets deadlines for the essays to be graded, and graders have quotas to meet.  Graders can score up to 100 essays in an hour.  It takes me, a highly qualified teacher with a Master’s Degree plus almost 18 hours of graduate English, about 5-6 HOURS to grade 130 essays accurately when we give mock STAAR exams.  If I have to take the time to grade PRACTICE essays, shouldn’t the test scorers be held to the same standard?  I seriously doubt the rubric is used effectively and would bet my salary that students’ scores are flawed.

If SB 149 passes, the graduation committee would look at overall grades in all courses.  Saying that graduates would be allowed “to walk without proving their mastery of important academic skills” is basically saying that no other classwork or projects are capable of teaching students such skills.  It is also a slap in the face to educators.  As a classroom teacher that spends roughly 90-100 hours with a student per year, please believe me when I say I can tell you what a student can or cannot do.  I don’t know when we stopped trusting teachers but it’s time for things to change.  I would challenge Donna Garner to step back in the classroom for one week, particularly in a Title 1 school, within the next two weeks before the test, but I don’t particularly want her near any students.

Looking forward, Texans should be PROUD that their voices have been heard, and that SB 149 was created as a direct result of public input.  There are still so many changes that need to be made regarding STAAR and how students are measured in school. HB 5 was just one small step in the right direction, and SB 149 follows in that regard.   

Thankfully, and again because of public input, SB 149 has passed the Senate and now only needs approval from the House and Governor Abbott.  However, if SB 149 does not pass, Texas schools will definitely be pushed further down the education hill because the STAAR test does not adequately measure “how well students have mastered academic knowledge and skills”, and ultimately, students will be the ones to bear the burden of retesting AGAIN and be labeled a “failure” as long as the test is allowed to be used as a “measuring stick”.