STAAR Test Maker Spent $20 Million to Fix Last Year's Problems

The Texas STAAR tests were already the subject of protests and boycotts last year when a series of gaffes led parents and education advocates to loathe the high-stakes standardized tests even more.

First, more than 14,000 kids who had spent months preparing for the hours-long test were perplexed to find after finishing it that all their answers had disappeared because of a glitch. Then, more confusion ensued after some test results were shipped to the wrong locations and thousands of others were scored inaccurately and had to be re-scored. Yet even more problems arose after a cohort of concerned parents filed a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency, claiming that the STAAR tests administered to their third- and fourth-graders were way too long, violating a state law requiring tests for those grade levels to last no more than two to three hours, depending on grade level.

Now, however, the Texas Education Agency says the New Jersey-based STAAR test provider has spent $20.7 million making changes the agency believes will prevent the problems that caused last year's chaos. The Educational Testing Service contracted with the TEA in 2015, and last year was its first time providing the STAAR tests in Texas. After the company's terrible first impression, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath levied $5.7 million in liquidated damages and forced ETS to spend $15 million of its own money investing in improvements.

Those changes, said TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan, include increasing the server's capability to handle larger volumes of test takers and a redesign of the delivery and tracking system, to make sure testing materials and scores are not sent to the wrong places, like a church instead of a school. The TEA has also shortened the tests for third through eighth graders by removing short-answer reading questions and replacing them with multiple choice questions, and has removed five to 14 test questions in other areas, or whole essay prompts altogether.

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"We're very encouraged by the work ETS has done up to this point," Callahan said. "Keep in mind, we're a state of 1,200 districts and charters and 5.3 million students. Is it going to be a perfect week? Probably not. We're hopeful. Certainly, we are very encouraged by the work that's been done and hopeful that it's going to be a much smoother week than it was last year at this time."

Still, parents have continued to boycott the tests.

The tests have been widely criticized by parents and teachers alike for their rigid nature and how they can make or break a kid's graduation to the next level. If kids in fifth- and eighth-grade don't pass, not only are they deemed ineligible to move on to middle or high school, but teachers and schools are also rated based on how kids perform on the tests — and therefore sometimes punished if kids do poorly. Critics say it all adds up to a high-pressure situation for everyone that ultimately takes away from the value of education.

Parents who are pulling their kids out of school during test week called the tests "inequitable, developmentally inappropriate and pedagogically unsound" in a press release announcing the boycott.

"Parents and educators are concerned about the relentless hours devoted to testing and test-prep instruction, the narrowing of curriculum (less time devoted to science, social studies, music, art, and physical education), the cost of testing, tests that are not developmentally appropriate, and tests that are not reliable being used to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers, and schools," parents with Community Voices for Public Education wrote in a release. "While meaningful assessment (low stakes diagnostic testing) is an essential component of a world class education, the high stakes nature of the STAAR tests does incredible harm to our children and our future."

Instead of taking the tests, students will have several days of "meaningful instruction" and learning provided by CVPE. The parents who decided to pull their kids plan to speak at a news conference Wednesday morning outside Kindred Church at 10:30.


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