The TEA, STAAR and Data Manipulation

Consistent reports from the April administration of the STAAR exam show a disturbing trend for parents who send their children to school and refuse the test.  Whether the child ever opens the test booklet or not, the TEA is instructing all districts to mark the exam S for “Score.”  This code ensures that the student is counted as participating in the STAAR examination and places a score of zero into the record of the child.  The TEA’s rationale for this is contradictory, particularly given the existence of other more appropriate codes for a refusal.  Both codes * and O more accurately represent the circumstances that exist when a child refuses to take the STAAR exam.  So why does the TEA mark the exam “Score” and record a zero for the child?

Lisa Cottle, with the TEA, states that TEA is required by statute to administer the exam to all students.  This is true, but that is a separate question from whether the exam is, in fact, taken by the student.  The TEA also contends that the education code requires a demonstration of proficiency for grade promotion, and the STAAR test is one measure of proficiency.  However, this rationale completely lays bare the lunacy of scoring a refused exam.  What could a zero on an exam that was not taken possibly tell a grade placement committee about the student’s academic readiness?  If the TEA cared about accurately evaluating academic readiness, they would assure that no misleading scores were contained in a student’s records.  Yet coding an untaken exam as S for score has the precise opposite effect.

So why, then, are school districts adamant about scoring refused STAAR exams and recording results?  The answer is two simple words: data manipulation.  Under the federal No Child Left Behind act, schools are required to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward total proficiency.  The STAAR test is Texas’s measuring stick.  However, the NCLB makes sure that schools can’t cherry pick the test takers by requiring that 95% of all students in all subgroups take the annual tests in order to meet AYP.  In a small school or demographically small subgroup, even one child missing the test can significantly impact that participation total.  In fact it may more drastically impact AYP attainment than failing the assessment with a zero.

To understand why, you must understand how AYP works. AYP is an improvement based index.  Thus, if a school has 30% proficiency in a subgroup one year, but 37% the next, it could meet AYP even with 63% of students in that subgroup failing to demonstrate proficiency.  However, if the participation rate drops below 95%, the rest of the results don’t matter — AYP cannot be met.  Thus, for a school, it is better to fail a child but report that he participated than to tell the truth that he was not tested.  A failing score hurts the school less than non-participation.  The impact on the child is unimportant to the data gatherers.  It’s all about making the numbers.

This is data manipulation at its basest level.  The school is lying to the state and federal government, and to all parents on its annual report card, when it represents that a child was tested when he was not.  But that is what the system has come to.  It is more important to claim people were tested when they weren’t than to accurately report that a child was not assessed.  The TEA supports this subterfuge, and districts happily participate — all in the name of AYP attainment.

– Scott Placek

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