Parents Sue State Over STAAR Exams That They Say Are Way Too Long for Kids

On Monday, parents around the state filed a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency, seeking to block this year's STAAR test results from being used to punish students, teachers and schools for unsatisfactory scores.

The parents were all part of a grassroots group called The Committee to Stop STAAR, and at the end of March, they had set up a page to raise money to pay a lawyer to help them sue the TEA for failing to comply with a law passed last session that made new rules for STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) testing. In just six weeks, they raised more than $20,000.

The lawsuit claims that the TEA issued about 2 million illegal tests to students across the state because it failed to make sure that those tests would not take kids two to three hours to complete, depending on grade level. According to the suit, kids as young as the third grade have been subjected to four-hour exams, and fourth graders had to do two-day writing assessments. In fact, on its website, the TEA openly admits that it hasn't yet complied, saying that it would be convening to figure out how to rethink the majority of tests that haven't been revamped during the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2017 — despite the fact that it had more than nine months to do this before testing began, as the lawsuit notes. 

"We really do think these STAAR assessments would be a little bit more humane if they were age-appropriate; we think [the legislature's length requirements] are good, common-sense reforms,” said Ben Becker, a Houston parent with The Committee to Stop STAAR. “But more importantly, if we can't trust that our state officials are going to respect the law when we get it changed, that's a huge systemic issue.”

The suit seeks to stop STAAR results from being used against kids and teachers and schools this year because of the TEA's noncompliance. And that could probably be a good thing for Houston ISD students: Almost half of fifth and eighth graders did not pass reading and math tests, respectively, according to preliminary data from the TEA released April 29. In a press release, the district also noted its concerns about all the problems that STAAR testing had this year. 

Likewise, Becker said that the TEA's failure to follow those new length requirements was just one issue that parents and educators in Texas have found with the STAAR testing over the past several years, but that they chose to develop the lawsuit around it because they had the most evidence to prove it in court. Other issues with this year's testing batch — according to a letter to TEA's Education Commissioner, Mike Morath, from various superintendents — included test results being shipped to the wrong location, inaccurate scoring and oh, yeah, that computer glitch that erased more than 14,000 students' test scores and caused widespread panic among kids and teachers alike, who suddenly worried that they had prepped for this standardized test for months only for it not to matter at all. (Morath agreed only to toss out those 14,000 or so scores, but despite the questionable errors, nothing else.)

On top of it, as the lawsuit notes, because the test is so high-stress (fifth and eighth graders must pass it to move on to the next level), the state keeps devoting more and more resources to STAAR prep rather than focusing on other areas of education, such as electives, arts or even kids who are struggling. The suit also notes that the TEA ordered school districts not to use State Compensatory Education funds — intended to help at-risk students, including homeless kids, teen mothers or English as a second language students — until it had fully funded accelerated instructional STAAR courses.

“We have a state that spends millions of dollars on these high-stress assessments every year,” Becker said, “and those funds could be used for well-rounded curriculum or community schools and wrap-around services, the types of things that we do know have an impact on better outcomes for children. But instead, as we continue to beat our schools and our children over the head with these assessments, every year, they take more draconian efforts to meet the bar.

“We're slowly dismantling public education around these high-stakes tests,” he added, “and what are we getting out of that?”

A TEA representative declined to comment on the suit, saying they hadn't yet been served.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn