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Should We (and Can We) Get Rid of the STAAR?

Getting rid of the STAAR test has been a campaign promise. Here's how that could look.
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Courtesy Dallas ISD

Should we get rid of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (or STAAR) test? It’s been a frequent promise by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, but whether the state can (and should) get rid of the standardized test comes with quite a few caveats.

First, a brief history of standardized testing: Historically, some kind of yearly assessment has been part of learning for centuries. But in 1965 President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which included testing. After a Reagan-era report warning that American students were falling behind, several administrations attempted to address that, but it wasn’t until 2002, and President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, that mandatory standardized testing with accountability measures became the norm. 

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed in 2015 and includes requirements for states to assess student performance in reading and math, but gives states a bit of latitude when it comes to how those assessments happen and what they look like.

Texas waded into standardized testing in 1980 with the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (or TABS). By 1990, TABS made way for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), which eventually grew to include subjects beyond math and reading. By the time NCLB was signed into law, Texas had switched to yet another assessment—the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). In 2012, the STAAR test replaced the TAKS. In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that made passing the STAAR test a requirement to graduate high school.

To get rid of the STAAR entirely, O’Rourke would need to have several things fall into place. One, he’d have to win. Secondly, he’d need a Democrat-controlled state legislature, and he’d have to convince a majority of legislators that it’s a good idea. He could issue an executive order, but the legal quagmire that would result would also be disruptive. Thirdly, he’d have to get around the federal requirement to annually assess students in reading, math, and science. (Spoiler: There isn’t a way, barring some kind of disaster that could get the Department of Education to sign off on a waiver as it did during the height of COVID, and that wouldn’t be permanent.)

So is O’Rourke engaging in the time-honored tradition of the campaign fib? Well, not exactly. Providing he is able to clear the first and second hurdle to all of this, he could get encourage the state legislature to get rid of the STAAR and replace it with something else, which would fulfill the federal requirements and his campaign promise.

Theoretically, that new test could simply test students according to federal requirements—tests in reading and math in third through eighth grades and once in high school. It could also jettison the above-and-beyond testing Texas does with science tests and social studies tests in the eighth grade, and the raft of tests that high school students take. It could also eliminate some of the more punitive measures, like accountability scores for schools and districts, and the requirements to pass the test in order to graduate high school. 

A recent Texas 2036 poll found that most voters would probably be comfortable with that sort of scale-back, too. The organization said that 87 percent of Texas voters support the use of annual reading and math tests for “apples-to-apples comparisons” of how schools measure up to others in the state.

The 2022 Charles Butt Foundation Education Survey found that 56 percent of those polled were not confident the STAAR effectively measures student learning. Just 17 percent think that the TEA should base its A-F accountability scores entirely on the STAAR, with 68 percent saying that public schools should be graded partially on test results, but also on the programs and services they offer.

In its Measure What Matters report, advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas pointed out that ESSA doesn’t require most of the subjects that STAAR tests for and it doesn’t require nearly the same high stakes that the state test does. The report also outlines measures the state could take to improve student outcomes that have nothing to do with testing.

In a panel discussion on the NCLB’s anniversary held at the Bush Institute earlier this year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush seemed to also agree the test should at least be more useful to students and teachers, and should be part of the learning strategy, but not the strategy itself. Getting results to teachers and parents earlier in the year, too, he said, would help address issues in nearly real-time.

“My biggest frustration is that we’re living in 2022, and the testing is the same as it existed in 1980,” he said. “It drives me nuts.”

“I think there’s probably someone that could probably come up with a test where you could determine where a kid stands, get it back in the hands of a teacher and a parent so that there could be not just an awareness of where they are, but a strategy on how to rectify their deficiencies and make this something that is part of the learning experience.”

In the meantime, there is momentum for improvements in the STAAR. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in September that a redesign will include fewer multiple-choice questions and more open-ended opportunities for written responses “because, as it turns out, reading and writing are pretty well connected.” The A-F accountability system will also see changes, he said, but didn’t explain what they would be.


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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