The Misuse of Assessment Must Stop.

I have seen an increase of articles discussing teacher resignations, and regardless of location, each teacher mentions not being able to handle the extreme amount of testing plaguing public schools.  I have also noticed an increase of  teachers that are still in the classroom speaking out against testing as well.

In the past four years, I have already done my fair share of speaking out and even testifying for improvements to testing policies during legislative sessions, but I know there is still so much more to be said and even more to be changed.  I am tired of educational stakeholders convincing people that assessments and standardized testing are one in the same.

I take great pride in the fact that I assess my students every day, often two or three times within a given period, because it lets me know what is happening in my classroom.  I am aware of what my students needs are because I use daily formative assessments to gauge their understanding and progress.  But now, thanks to STAAR and our low scores that are typical across the state, I have incredibly less freedom on how I assess my students.

A case in point:  This past semester, I taught a unit over Lord of the Flies.  I have not actually taught this book since my second year of teaching in 2004.  I looked back through my files and remembered having my kids go outside and actually try to use magnifying glasses to burn grass to show how hard it is to start a fire with nothing but Piggy’s specs.  They wrote journal entries about what survival skills mean to them and what they would do if they were stranded on an island.  We had a whole class debate about whether it is more important to build shelters or to hunt for food, mimicking a conversation between Ralph and Jack.  I had my students do various other projects that involved symbolism and writing persuasive arguments and using the text to back up their positions.

Fast forward to 2015 and my unit for Lord of the Flies does not come close to the project based activities I did ten years ago.  Instead, this year I’ve been doing “close reading” exercises and practicing short answer responses, which require students to write a formulaic response in a ten-lined box, hardly room to express opinions thoroughly.  I was also required to give multiple common assessments starting in September and mix Lord of the Flies into one of the assessments by including a passage from the novel and having students complete yet another short answer response.  Below is how many practice tests my kids have had to take within one semester.  Each test varied in the number of questions, but all contained multiple choice questions similar to those found on the STAAR test.

“Unit 1 Pretest”/common assessment: 9/4                                                                                               “Unit 2″/common assessment: 10/5                                                                                                          “Unit 3″/common assessment:  11/5                                                                                                       District assessment: 11/20                                                                                                                  MOCK STAAR test Part ONE (to be given as the midterm): 12/16 & 12/18.

Now that we are back from winter break, my students must now complete the MOCK STAAR Part TWO, which has taken yet another TWO CLASS PERIODS (3 hours).  In total, my students have already “tested” for almost 720 minutes, or 12 hours, or in teacher time: THREE WEEKS of class since we are on a block schedule.  I’m aware not every student takes the full class period to test, but that just means they have to quietly wait and/or work on another assignment while their classmates finish.  How is almost a month of time spent preparing for a test not count as teaching to the test?  And keep in mind this does not include any other common assessments our district decides we must give before our testing date in April.  It also does not include students who are required to attend “intervention” periods for up to 30 minutes, 4 days a week, working on “English skills”.

What’s more frustrating about these “unit” assessments is that because  Texas has rules against how much instructional time can be used for preparing students for the STAAR test, I am not supposed to count them as major grades in the gradebook.  The district assessment was not even counted as a grade, minor or major.  That means I have to convince my students that it is for their benefit to take yet another practice test, even though it won’t impact their grade.  Now, I’m actually all for not taking grades, but that is not to be confused with lying to my students, which is what I feel like I’m doing.  I am lying when I tell them that trying their best is important.  It’s actually not important because I don’t believe the STAAR test is important.  Thankfully, no colleges or trade schools–or employers for that matter–look at STAAR scores for admission criteria.

A lot of people know I feel about the STAAR test or overtesting in general, and many people have argued that we need something in order to measure student performance.  I very much agree, and believe there are THOUSANDS of ways to do this.  Typically in my classroom, end of unit assessments are a piece of critical writing or a project that a student has chosen to create to show their understanding of a text.  I try to provide a lot of choice so students are more open to actually doing the project, and so that they can take ownership for what they have done.  After projects are turned in, I can tell who understood the subject and who did not.  I know who just didn’t do it because they were lazy versus having a real issue with comprehension.  I know I know these things because I see my kids every other day and see what they do in class.  I also generally know what’s going on outside of school, and how that may or may not be impacting their performance.

For instance, one of my students this year was required to retake the English 1 STAAR exam in December for a third time (he failed the original spring test and summer retest).  The week before the retest, his nephew died in a tragic accident.  He came to me after the test and told me how difficult it was to stay focused, and that he didn’t think he did very well.  This is a kid actually has a physical disability, comes to class every day wanting to work, asks for help when needed, is one of the most creative writers I’ve had in a while, and now he feels bad because he thinks he did poorly on a test.  As his teacher, I could care less if he fails it.  I can measure his progress in so many other ways, and that test SHOULD NOT BE the only way that lets me know if he’s learning.

Unfortunately, the STAAR test will remain the determining factor for all Texas students until change is made.  That change will not happen until more people start to realize that when the news reports start quoting statistics and numerical data to show what schools are “exemplary or failing”, that they’re actually talking about individual students from a wide variety of backgrounds that each have specific educational needs, and that standardized testing is not the answer if we want to assess our students, teachers, and schools fairly.




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.

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”.



#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: