What Texas Tests – and Why That Matters

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by Tracy Young

texas eduThe exams that Texas students must take to graduate are being attacked again during this legislative session.  Legislators are calling into question whether it matters if students can show on an objective measure that they have the skills and knowledge the state is expecting students to have.

In reality, our entire community – including students, their parents, educators, employers and colleges, as well as taxpayers – have a need to know, based on independent, objective data, whether students are prepared for college or career when they complete their schooling. Sadly, in a world where kids can get ribbons for simply showing up and participating, a key indicator is, and must remain, reliable statewide assessments that are highly aligned to the state’s standards.

Let’s look into the details.


Summary of standards for sophomore English

via the Texas Education Agency

Reading, where students read and understand a wide variety of literary and informational texts;

Writing, where students compose a variety of written texts with a clear controlling idea, coherent organization, and sufficient detail;

Research, where students are expected to know how to locate a range of relevant sources and evaluate, synthesize, and present ideas and information;

Listening and Speaking, where students listen and respond to the ideas of others while contributing their own ideas in conversations and in groups;

Oral and Written Conventions, where students learn how to use the oral and written conventions of the English language in speaking and writing.

The place to start is with the state’s education standards, which are known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or, affectionately, the TEKS (pronounced “teeks”). The elected State Board of Education determines what students should know to graduate. The board does so in collaboration with educators and seeks input from others such as business leaders and parents. http://tea.texas.gov/curriculum/teks/ Together, they create the TEKS.

These standards are not hidden away, either. They are in plain view for Texans to read.

While maybe not easy, these standards are straightforward and reasonable expectations for a high school graduate.


The objective measure used to assess students’ grasp of such standards, otherwise known as a standardized test, has become a mysterious boogeyman. The STAAR exam (the most recent Texas statewide, standardized test) has ended up portrayed as something disconnected from the classroom and everyday learning.

Let’s look again at the publicly-available English II test. The high school exam for that course is the last one that Texas students are supposed to pass to graduate. The Texas Education Agency has now released the 2014 English II test that was given to 10th graders a year ago. (You can read it on the agency’s website.)

This “disconnected” test is actually made up of passages to read with questions after the passage, a familiar format to anyone who has gone through school.

Some passages and questions relate to a student’s writing skills while other passages and questions have to do with whether a student has understood what he or she has read. The public often hears that schools need to measure more “higher order thinking.” It is clear that some questions expect that the student can utilize higher order thinking as well as simple recall of information.

For example, the first writing passage is one called “Grady the Famous Cow” and does not seem too difficult at all. The first question checks to see if the student can combine two related sentences in a paragraph in a way that makes sense. Another question expects a student to realize that just using the word “they” does not explain who the writer is talking about. A final question asks the student to choose which one of four sentences is an ending sentence that strengthens the story’s closing.

UTAustin_logoOther passages have questions that have the student show correct use of the word “however,” or use a comma correctly, or know that titles should be capitalized or know how to use “their” and “his” correctly.

Then there is a literary essay with questions that determine whether to use the words “good” or “well.” They also try to determine whether students understand the difference between “lose” and “loose.”

The final part of the writing test expects students to write a persuasive piece on whether learning has a positive effect on a person’s life.

None of this is exceptionally difficult.  However, it is clear that one cannot read the passage, then go to the questions and just answer them.

The student must go back to the passage and look at it carefully in order to answer almost each question. A student must be willing to check back again after having read the passage the first time in order to figure out the information. This is not unlike work each of us must often do every day with written materials we receive in our work.

The next section of the exam is on Reading.  There are three-page passages to read with questions after the passages.  The questions require choosing one of four choices.

For example, in one the reader is expected to infer exactly why something is happening in the story and does require some re-reading to figure out the best answer.  Another question asks the reader if the tone of a particular short paragraph is “outraged,” “admiring,” “resigned” or “hopeful.” Another question asks the reader to pick which of four sentences best describes the author’s purpose for writing an article. Another question asks how two readings about different topics are actually similar. The answer is fairly obvious if one has read both selections carefully.

A 15-line poem is next with questions about imagery, themes and symbols.  These questions are definitely the kind of “higher order” thinking that many post-secondary institutions and business professionals say is required in today’s world.

A final selection has other questions and asks the test taker to provide a short written answer to explain the author’s opinion using evidence from the selection.


So, how are the tests created?

The Texas Education Agency works closely with the test maker, in this case Pearson, to make sure the test is constructed with quality and measures what the state standards expect students to know.
Texas teachers are involved in designing the questions.

Every test item goes through many checks to make sure it is a good one. Some questions are easier, some are harder. All well-constructed tests have some questions that are easy and others that are very hard.

Not many students would be able to answer all questions correctly. In fact, the state has set a low bar for what is considered passing – a student only has to get about half of the questions correct to pass the test. Also, the student gets five separate chances to take and re-take the test if he or she fails to pass.

In all, the test asks students to show that they can read and write with skill and understanding at a level that should be expected by a high school graduate.

But since a student only has to get about half of the questions correct, missing some of the more difficult ones will not keep him or her from passing.

The fact that some students cannot even get close to half correct after re-taking the test five times says pretty clearly that they have not been taught the skills that the state standards expect. Sadly, in Texas today, about 30,000 high school students fall into this category.

Instead of hearing about the importance of them walking the stage in May, we should be spending more time, effort and legislation on providing these students remedial help and tutoring. I would rather know that the student walking the stage has the skills needed for post-secondary or job success – skills that the state of Texas promised her before she graduated and received that diploma.


The big question is why students who cannot pass the exam might be receiving passing grades in the classroom. Testing and accountability started as a way to determine whether students are actually learning the required skills in a classroom.

I know classroom grades tell an important part of the story, but we must also have that independent cross-check that is the same for all students. That kind of test tells us if what is going on in the classroom actually translates to knowing the expected state standards. That’s where the state test comes in.

Bobby Kennedy raised the issue of comparability as a senator when the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was being created 50 years ago in 1965. He quizzed educators about whether there was some way to test how well students were grasping critical information.

Nationally, the pivotal A Nation at Risk report showed in the early 1980s that American students were coming up short in fundamental subjects like reading and math even though classroom grades did not reveal that.  What’s more, businesses and colleges were saying in states like Texas that students were graduating with good grades, but they could not do the work required of them.

That disconnection led states to look at classroom expectations. Was the school expecting the same level of work that the state standards require?  And does the school have the same expectations for every student?

As we consider what now is expected of Texas students, is there anything in the standards mentioned above that we don’t think students should know?  And don’t we want to cross-check whether they know it?

Standards and tests may not always be popular, leading some in Austin to move away from them. Yet standards are necessary for our state to thrive and advance, and tests show us whether or not Texas students are mastering those important standards.

If students do not have a firm grasp of what’s expected of them, being passed along to the next grade will only limit their ability to acquire the next level of skills. Eventually, they will enter the world unprepared for the challenges that await them. And they will not be qualified for the jobs that could provide a decent wage for them and their families.

In short, they will live in a world of limited horizons. Is that really the Texas we want for our children?

Tracy Young is director of the Education Reform initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.


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