Here in Texas, students take a lot of standardized tests. The new STAAR exam system originally asked students to pass 15 different end-of-course (EOC) exams in their four major academic subjects (12 base + 3 writing exams for English). Recent legislation will reduce the number of EOC exams to just 5:
- biology (usually taken by freshmen)
- Algebra I (taken by freshmen who are at grade level)
- English II reading (taken by sophomores)
- English II writing
- U.S. history (taken by juniors)
This will cause less stress on students, teachers, and parents, proponents argue. They also say that these exams, overwhelmingly from the first two years of high school, best predict college readiness.
Um, excuse me??!
My ninth grader (who, by the way, is not at all stressed by the academic load or the four looming STAAR tests) will not be ready for college math after Algebra I this year, and if just 1-2 more years of math were required, the child definitely will have forgotten everything about how different coefficients change the shape of the parent parabolic function. If those math classes have no high-stakes anything attached, there’s no incentive to pay attention or do well because there are retakes and extra credit to save the day. Many students coming to college now took only three years of mathematics. In other words, when they walk into college algebra, they haven’t seen much math in over 15 months.
Also, I’m supposed to believe that high school sophomores’ scores on a ridiculously short STAAR expository or persuasive essay, both of which encourage personal storytelling, predict their readiness for freshman rhetoric and composition? Did I mention that by “ridiculously short” I mean that these writing samples cannot exceed 26 lines?! 26 lines is a paragraph the way some students write! And it’s actually a step backwards compared to the old TAAS test of the 90s, which asked students to write a 5-paragraph essay. Here’s the first page of one TAAS essay, which gets through just 2 paragraphs in 26 lines. 5 paragraphs down to 2 paragraphs. This predicts college readiness?
As a college English instructor, I don’t even allow personal narrative, and students must write research papers, several pages in length, in complete, grammatical sentences. Two paragraphs is a rough draft (and not even a good one). Please don’t tell me that students learn more advanced skills by the time they graduate, either. I have seen what high school seniors do on “research papers” in English IV — paragraph by paragraph, often with sources provided and text developed by small groups, after a quick tour through MLA format. Some high school teachers have admitted to me that they never assign a single research paper. “Well, research papers are for those going to college,” you might say. I don’t care if a kid is going straight into the workforce. A memo is more than two paragraphs, and many of them involve informal research. The best cover letters are written after you do a little research about the position and the company with the job opening.
A Possible Solution
I believe that testing students’ ability to retain, comprehend, and apply the knowledge covered in the previous school year is a decent way to determine the success of instruction. These are called final exams.
Teachers could provide the state with the raw scores on their final exams, but those exams must be rigorous and comprehensive in nature. There’s also the huge issue of “exempting” finals in high school, where students who have at least a “B” average (after retakes and extra credit, don’t forget) don’t have to take the tests. The population sitting these final exams are the struggling kids, the kids who never turned in work, the kids who panicked at tests during the regular term. I wouldn’t expect these scores to be the best.
Here’s one idea: Let teachers for each class at a school come together and put together a good, fair, comprehensive exam over the content they know they have covered, keeping in mind the relevant TEKS; it could be as simple as pulling a few questions from every unit test and tweaking them slightly. Every teacher could submit a selection of questions, and different versions of the exam would be compiled by one individual, even someone from another subject area or someone at a neighboring school — no one, especially not teachers, would see the final versions until the day(s) of the test. Final exam periods could be restructured so all Algebra I tests are given at a particular time, or different tests could be reserved for second period vs. fifth period. Teachers would know, however, that there will be a question about mitosis, a question about graphing quadratic equations, a question about revenge in Romeo and Juliet, etc. to help students prepare. They just wouldn’t know the exact prompts.
Then, make every single student take a final exam in every class. Each exam could have a cover sheet where students would write their name, teacher, and class period. The exam would have a specific, random number on the cover sheet and every page of the test. This way, the cover page can be removed, the exams distributed evenly and randomly to all teachers for that subject, and tests scored with less bias, since teachers wouldn’t know which exams belonged to which students.
Notice I’m not talking about multiple-choice scantron tests here. Put together 10 really good, problem-solving, critical-thinking questions and mark those on a standard rubric rather than asking kids to wade through 150 guessing-game items.
Schools could report those numbers to the state, including a copy of the administered exam. Exams would need to be reworked every year to prevent cheating.
More work for teachers? Maybe. It could mean more control and more confidence over success.
More chances for teachers to rig the system and submit easy questions or provide each other with a list of all potential questions? Maybe. Teachers keep asking for more control over their own curriculum, so it would be in everyone’s best interests to conduct the exam process with the strictest ethical practices. Districts concerned about this could use a model where every biology I teacher submits 15 questions related to the content that should have been covered that year, and a district admin would create tests for John Adams High School using questions sent from everywhere BUT John Adams faculty.
Plus, think about all the money Texas could save by not paying for STAAR…