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Texas School District Sues to Prevent Shutdown Over Test Scores

One small, struggling Texas school that faces possible takeover or closure signed onto a lawsuit filed by a group of parents against the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

The Marlin Independent School District may be the first to join the parent-initiated lawsuit against 2015-16 STAAR testing in May. Superintendent Michael Seabolt told KWTX: “I think Marlin ISD will be the first to join this lawsuit as party plaintiffs and essentially that makes Marlin as a school district ground zero for state testing accountability reform.”

Marlin ISD has a lot at stake. It serves just under 1,000 students roughly 35 miles southeast of Waco and has been in academic hot water for some time. It failed to meet state accountability standards for five consecutive years and landed on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) Public Education Grant (PEG) list from 2011 through 2016-17. Its three campuses were labeled low performers because of poor test scores or unacceptable ratings.

To meet the state’s standard, at least 60 percent of its students must pass the STAAR, although the test is not the only metric used to rate school districts. Texas also measures student progress, closing performance gaps, and post-secondary readiness. Still, students who fail the STAAR may be held back or required to take remediation classes.

Last year, Marlin ISD lost its TEA accreditation and operates under an agreement with the state. The TEA also appointed a monitor to watch over the floundering school district and brought in Seabolt to try to turn the district around. He told the Waco Tribune he was the fourth superintendent in five years.

“Marlin has had some academic troubles for a very long time,” he said. “We have an agreement with the TEA that was in place, an abatement agreement, to keep Marlin ISD open.”

The district serves a viable service to a rural community of students. Closing the doors on its three schools–an elementary, middle and high school–would force students to be bused to one of four other school districts located between 10 to 25 miles away.

Recently, Seabolt said he was 75 percent sure Marlin ISD would remain open because of district STAAR test score improvements this year, according to the Waco Tribune. Marlin ISD saw progress in its middle and high schools, although elementary school scores remained low, KWTX noted. In addition to joining the lawsuit, Seabolt intends to file an appeal of the district’s STAAR test results before a September 30 deadline to do so.

“You know, we look at the test the same way the parents do.  The test violated state law and Marlin should not be held accountable for a test that violates state law,” Seabolt told KCEN.

The lawsuit in question, Lewis, et. al. v. Morath, seeks to stop the TEA from using the 2015-16 STAAR student test results for accountability ratings purposes. The plaintiffs allege the agency broke a new state law, House Bill 743, that shortened testing times for grades three through eight so that 85 percent of these elementary students could complete the exam in two hours, and 85 percent of middle schoolers, in three hours. The lawsuit argues the test violated the new time restrictions.

STAAR tests are “designed to measure the extent to which a student has learned and is able to apply the defined knowledge and skills at each tested grade or course level,” according to the TEA. The annual exams have come under fire since replacing its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in 2012. STAAR results remained flat while a smoldering weariness towards teaching-to-the-test education washed over the state.

Last year’s STAAR testing season was fraught with problems that wreaked havoc on administering the test to the state’s 5.5 million school children. Texas switched testing vendors from Pearson to Educational Testing Services (ETS), another heavyweight in large-scale school testing. In their first year, ETS experienced a multitude of computer glitches that erased test answers in school districts, scoring problems, tests with no right answers, lost test results, and even test booklets sent to the wrong schools.

Breitbart Texas reported:

“Education Commissioner Mike Morath responded to the problems plaguing this year’s exams by scrapping the reading and math testing requirements for fifth and eighth grade students — some who might have otherwise gone to summer school or had to retest later in June because they failed the 2015-16 STAAR during the school year.”

However, parent Ben Becker affiliated with StopSTAAR 2016 recently told Breitbart Texas: “We are asking the court to throw out all scores for grades three through eight and order the TEA to not use those scores for any aspect of the accountability system and communicate to school districts to expunge them from student, teacher and principal records and performance reviews.”

In August, Morath announced the TEA fined ETS $20.7 million in response to these systematic failures and ordered them to improve their services.

Stop the 2016 STAAR Results exceeded its GoFundMe $25,000 goal to cover Arnold & Placek legal fees.

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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