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David Berliner and Sharon Nichols wrote this opinion article for the San Antonio Express-News. The headline: “STAAR Outcome Obvious; Test Is a Waste of $90 Million.” Nichols is a professor at the University of Texas in San Antonio and Berliner is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University.
Published in the San-Antonio Express-News, Wednesday 2/3/2021
STOP THE STAAR TESTING—TEXAS’S STANDARDIZED ACHIEVEMENT TEST
Sharon L. Nichols is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. David C. Berliner is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education at Arizona State University.
The Texas Education Agency is submitting a waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education seeking to pause the A-F school grading process this year. This is good. Continuing the charade of grading schools on the social-class makeup of their students has always been unethical. That is because “who” attends the schools is the overwhelming determinant of the standardized test scores on which school grades are based. So, calling schools “A” or “D, “good” or “bad,” without visiting schools and evaluating staff and the quality of instruction that kids get is unintelligible—if not simply mean.
However, according to the waiver notice put out by the TEA, we should still make students take the annual STAAR test this year because “it remains critical that parents, educators, and policymakers understand the impact of the pandemic on student learning.”
This is absurd. Let’s just admit kids have fallen behind in learning the standard curriculum. Most of us are sure that is the case. But we have no way of estimating what they might have learned from time at home: cooking, gardening, playing educational games, practicing instruments, tutoring siblings, reading on their own, etc. They weren’t all watching cartoons!
It costs Texans $90 million to test students every year. Why would we want to spend $90 million of taxpayer money on an endeavor that will yield information Texas already has. Data from other states’ testing programs inform us that year-to-year school scores are correlated so high, that if state testing were to be suspended for one or two years, there would be hardly any change in what was learned about a schools’ performance and its relative rank among the state’s schools. Texas already has 2019 test scores. So, if you give the test this year, you will spend $90 million only to learn something already known. Surely such money could be used for some other educational needs.
Furthermore, if you want to know how the students are doing vis-á-vis the desired school curriculum, ask a teacher. Studies show they can predict the rank order of their students on the state’s test amazingly well.
Another important reason for not testing this year is that content coverage by students has been uneven. Some kids took to remote learning, some didn’t; some kids had an adequate computer and a reliable Wi-Fi signal, but some did not. Some had a parent at home working with them, some did not. Some grappled with COVID-19 directly having to cope with sick family members, some did not.
We know that depression rates skyrocketed over the past year, with three times as many Americans meeting criteria for depression during the pandemic. We have no idea how this has affected millions of school-aged children. So, if the Texas curriculum for, say, 5th grade mathematics or language arts was not taught fully, or not received by every child, the test is patently invalid. That is because the test designers assume all kids have had an equal chance at exposure to the content of a state’s required curriculum.
If that assumption has clearly not been met, as in the 2019-2020 school year and now the 2020-2021 school year, the test scores obtained are prima facie uninterpretable. Furthermore, to use such a test for any consequential decision-making is in violation of the code of ethics of the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education. Consequential decisions made on the basis of those invalid tests are easily and rightfully challenged in court. STAAR data for 2021 are tainted.
So, do we really want to spend $90 million dollars of our education budget on standardized achievement tests when it is clear students need new curriculum to discern facts from lies; when they need to deal with history and contemporary issues related to racism, sexism, social class differentiation, and climate change; or when they need to learn the rights and obligations of citizenship in our state and nation? Surely, in Texas, there are better ways to use $90 million dollars.