Houston ISD Suspends Using Standardized Tests To Hold Kids Back

AP Photo/Steve Ruark

The Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees voted 7-2 to permanently suspend using state standardized test scores as a grade promotion and retention yardstick on students in the lower and middle grades.

The test in question is the mandated State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and Houston ISD will no longer factor in poor test results to determine which students in grades 3, 4, 6, and 7 will be retained or sent to summer school. Currently, lower grade students who fail the STAAR reading or math can appeal to a committee that includes the school principal, teacher, and parent. State law, though, requires benchmarking fifth and eighth grade test scores as a determinant of whether a student may move up to the next grade.

However, the issue bubbled up because Houston ISD was among the only school districts in the state that used STAAR scores to determine if students got held back in these other grades, the Houston Chronicle reported. In December, parents complained to the school board that the proposed 2017-18 school year would end weeks before the district received test scores for grades other than fifth and eighth. In turn, this would make it difficult for principals to contact parents over summer vacation to advise if the student failed the test and needed to attend summer school or else, be held back.

Originally, on Thursday evening, the school board planned to vote to suspend the use of test scores in retention decisions for the current school year, according to the January 12 meeting resolution. Instead, trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones proposed making the change permanent to alleviate the need to pass a recurring resolution annually. She clarified the intent behind her amendment was solely about “common sense,” pointing out the Texas Education Agency (TEA) published the calendar through 2019 so “we’re going to have to do this again in 2018 and 2019 which, to me, doesn’t make much sense.”

Board member Anna Eastman supported the original temporary resolution but objected to suspending the standard permanently without first putting any new promotion and retention standards in place.

“I think there’s a commitment to deal with that future calendar item but if we don’t have something there hanging in balance to push us to make sure we address it, I’m concerned that we won’t,” she said. Eastman was one of two trustees to vote against the amended resolution.

During public comments, Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, spoke in support of the resolution. He called it a “step in the right direction to move both kids and our schools away from inappropriate and unintended consequences of the accountability systems as they’ve been put forward.”

Capo alluded to changes that needed to occur on behalf of teachers and testing. In 2014, seven Houston ISD teachers, through the Texas American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a branch of the national AFT, sued to block the state’s educator appraisal system, Texas Teachers Evaluation and Support System (T-TESS), created under former federal education mandate, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Texas AFT called it unfair.

Following the board meeting, HISD Parent Advocates called this a victory for parents and students.

Parent Ben Becker, affiliated with the Stop STAAR 2016, said on Facebook: “Parents and students won tonight at HISD.” He attended the board meeting and explained that parents previously met with school district administrators and Skillern-Jones over the asynchronistic scenario.

Last year, Becker was part of a lawsuit which alleged the TEA broke state law, House Bill 743, by exceeding newly shortened testing times for students in grades three through five.

Houston ISD, in tweeting the 7-2 passing board vote, clarified they will no longer use student STAAR scores for grade-level promotion decisions, unless required by state law.

The STAAR has been under fire since it was implemented five years ago to replace the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). Results stagnated. High numbers of public and charter schools were identified as low performing because of poor test scores or unacceptable ratings and landed on the annual Public Education Grant (PEG) list. Then, a change in the testing vendor company was fraught with systematic failures that wreaked havoc on administering the exam in 2016. This only intensified dissatisfaction with standardized testing.

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