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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