TEA Commissioner Admits Teachers Unable to Align Instruction with STAAR

On August 21, 2014, TEA Commissioner Michael Williams announced that Texas would once again delay implementing increased performance standards for its STAAR examinations which are used to assess academic readiness, are required for automatic promotion to 6th or 9th grade, and which must be passed by high school students in five different areas in order for any public school in Texas to grant that student a diploma.

In 2011, the TEA awarded a foreign company, Pearson Education, a half billion dollar contract to develop the STAAR exam as a replacement for a well-established assessment system.  The TEA set a schedule of implementation that included regular increases in performance standards until an ultimate performance goal was attained.  However, despite not knowing how the test would align with the essential skills taught in Texas schools, the TEA determined that high school students would still be penalized with non-graduation if they failed to pass this new and unproven exam.  In fact, the TEA failed to require Pearson Education to obtain independent validation of the test instrument.  Instead, in a shocking example of conflict of interest, Pearson was allowed to self-certify the validity of its $500 million project.

But all has not been well.  The TEA’s own research demonstrated that Pearson’s accommodations for LEP students (a growing portion of Texas public school students) were completely ineffective.  Initial increases to performance standards were delayed due to stagnant test results.  Finally, the TEA commissioner announced yet another delay in increased standards – a clear indicator that the assessment system is not working.  But what is most shocking is the admitted reason for the delay.  In a memo to administrators, Commissioner Williams stated that the reason was to “provide additional time for educators to adjust instruction to align with the more rigorous TEKS measured by the STAAR program.”  In the public news release, the reason stated was to “give[] educators additional time to make the significant adjustments in instruction necessary to raise the level of performance of all Texas students.”

Thus, four years into STAAR, the TEA commissioner admits that teachers have not yet found a way to align the teaching of TEKS (essential skills) with the STAAR test that pretends to measure those skills.  In fact, he tells the public that this requires “significant adjustments.”  This should not surprise anyone, since the TEA threatens to pursue criminal charges against teachers who even ask a student what they found difficult on the STAAR exam.  How can teachers figure out how to teach TEKS in a way that the test measures when they can’t talk about the test itself with the students who have to take it?

So Commissioner Williams is delaying the implementation of the new standards.  But what about the Class of 2015?  For four years, these students have struggled to pass an assessment that our own TEA commissioner now admits the teachers are unable to prepare them for.  This is why almost 20% — over 50,000 real Texas kids — are being threatened with non-graduation.  What is Commissioner Williams’ solution for them?  Another year of ineffective preparation occasioned by a secret test?  Permanent labeling as a high school dropout?

There is only one solution:  Commissioner Williams must suspend the TEA STAAR graduation requirements until this system is fixed.  Anything less is simply cavalier disregard for the well-being of our kids, for the future of the Texas economy, and for the public education system itself.

A petition to delay implementation of the STAAR Graduation Requirements can be found here.

Fighting the Opt Out Truancy Threats: Dual Enrollment Home Schooling

Schools are actively brandishing the threat of truancy charges against parents who exercise their fundamental liberty rights to direct the education of their children and protect them from abusive testing regimens.  Schools have sent threatening letters and in some cases actually filed truancy charges against both parents and children if they missed10 days (unexcused) in a six month period or more than three days in a four week period.  We have seen letters threatening to file truancy charges against nine year old students, even though the statute only makes truancy criminal if the child is between 12 and 18 years of age.  It is less clear if parents can be charged for truancy of children under age 12 because of the confusing way the statute is written.  One argument would say that the days missed calculation applies to students of all ages for purposes of charging the parent.  Another argument would say that the days missed calculation can only be determined by reference  to the age of the child, and therefore parents can’t be charged if the student is under 12.  We predict schools will take the first interpretation and file charges against parents and force them to argue in court, at risk of conviction, that the second interpretation should prevail.  We do not believe schools will file against any student under age 12.  (Please file an Incident Report with us if they do)

Rather than depend on legal semantics to fight the charges, parents do have other options.  Please note, none of these options have been tested in court.  There is always a risk that a judge may reject them, but we believe they are legally sound.  The first option is the withdraw/re-enroll option discussed in a previous article.  The main requirement here is that if charges are filed, you must demonstrate that you have an actual home school program during the time of disenrollment that includes a study of good citizenship.  Curriculum purchased or downloaded from the internet, along with assignments from the days of withdrawal would support this factual finding.  Of course, if you take this route, you are faced with multiple withdrawals and re-enrollments during a school year.  This is a time consuming undertaking.  We also believe local school boards may try to pass policies to combat this if this approach becomes prevalent.  For this reason, we are proposing a new approach.  Again, this approach is legally untested, but we believe it to be valid and consistent with state law.

The approach is what we call Homeschool Co-Enrollment.  At its heart, Homeschool Co-Enrollment is the essence of what schools should seek in a family’s approach to education.  In Homeschool Co-Enrollment, parents are actively involved supporting and supplementing the academic development of their child.  Homeschool Co-Enrollment exists informally in many ways.  Sunday School classes, academic tutoring centers, and family reading times are all examples of homeschooling that we engage in informally, not to mention giving homework help and quizzing your child to prepare for tests.  Our proposal is for a family that intends to take their kids out of school during STAAR testing to make this relationship formal.

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Reviewing Your Child’s STAAR Assessment – A Step by Step Guide

On June 27, 2014, Kyle and Jennifer Massey did something that the Texas Education Agency and local school districts had spent years denying was possible: they reviewed the STAAR assessment booklet and answer sheet that was administered to their child.  Previous requests by parents had been met with denials that ranged from “that’s not possible” to “that’s illegal.”  However, the Texas Education Code is very clear on this issue: “a parent is entitled to access to a copy of each state assessment instrument administered under Section 39.023 to the parent’s child.” (Sec. 26.005).  With four volunteers, the law firm of Arnold & Placek set out to see what would happen when parents decided to stop taking no for an answer and demand the legal rights the Texas legislature granted to them.  The answer came today: parents do have a right to review their child’s test booklet and answer sheet.  They are not confined to the unhelpful summary data on the STAAR scoring reports.  This right of access is the first step in ending the secrecy and almost mystical air that surrounds the STAAR tests.  Teachers are threatened with criminal charges or loss of their teaching certifications if they dare to even ask their students what problems were difficult for them.  But parents still have a voice.  We are not required to sit back and accept that it is not possible to know the content of the assessment that our state legislators have dictated will control our children’s futures.  The Texas Parents’ Educational Rights Network encourages all Texas parents to request and review the STAAR assessments administered to their children.  This guide will tell you how to do it.

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A Note on Accelerated Instruction (STAAR Summer School)

Updated June 2018

At the 5th and 8th grade Grade Placement Committees, some schools will take the position that the law prohibits them from promoting your student unless they attend required accelerated instruction (AI). The law could be read that way if your child took and failed the STAAR. For students that did not take the STAAR (even if they were scored a zero based on test refusal) the law could also be read in a way to say AI is not required. If your child has not been tested or refused the test, your position should be that AI is not required because there is no failure to perform satisfactorily because your child was never assessed.

Still, based on TEA pressure, the district will often insist on requiring AI, the following points should be made by you (page citations are to the TEA’s Student Success Initiave Manual downloadable here):

1. The AI program should be based on individual student needs (pp. 5, 13).  Therefore, the GPC needs to identify the specific needs of your student, and design a program specific to those needs. Overlapping instruction that covers other needs is not proper, so placing them in a group environment with students with different needs is not consistent with the manual.  If your child is 504/Special Education, this is a huge issue, particularly if the disability or condition is the likely cause of the performance.  (“Do you plan to teach my child how not to be dyslexic during summer school?”).

2. “Neither the law nor the rules specify the amount of time to be provided for the accelerated instruction.” (p. 32). The GPC has discretion to prescribe any AI program that is appropriate. If the GPC agrees a student is academically ready for promotion, a single 30 minute class can satisfy the statute. As a parent, go into your meeting with a proposal if the school is insisting that AI . (i.e. Since it is apparent my child is academically ready, I will agree to one week of AI).  Remind them, that the SSI Manual encourages the GPC to be flexible with summer Accelerated Instruction. (p. 31)

3. Finally, please remember YOU ARE A PART OF THE GPC. If the committee comes in with a decision already made, you tell them you want a new committee because they made a decision without your input. It is completely improper for that committee to have decided anything before you are there to meet with them!  By meeting without you, the school has failed to follow the law and the decision of the committee is not valid.

To prepare for your GPC meeting, try to get an e-mail or note from the STAAR subject teachers stating your child is academically ready for promotion based on classroom work and their professional assessment during the school year.  Collect any other assessments or diagnostics indicating your child’s performance was grade level appropriate.  If you have time, consider having outside evaluations or diagnostics done.  This will give you an objective view as to whether promotion or retention is in your child’s best interest.

Good luck!. As always, if schools fail to follow the law, please make an Incident Report to us!

Scott Placek
Arnold & Placek, P.C.

Parental Access Rights Upheld then Denied in Canyon ISD

Edit: Since the time that this article was published, TEA “reached out” to Canyon ISD and ordered them NOT to provide test access.  This was a reversal of the opinion given by the TEA legal department two days earlier.  It was a policy reversal at the behest of a “testing specialist”, not a lawyer who had already approved the process.  Update pending.

A recurring issue in the parental objections to the STAAR test has been the absolute refusal of schools and the TEA to permit parents to inspect the assessments given to their children.  As one mother put it, “I won’t let my child read a book assignment unless the book is appropriate, but they won’t even tell me what is being asked on a four hour test!”   The Texas legislature clearly intends for parents to have the right to review any state assessment given to their child.  The Education Code provides that “[e]xcept as provided by Section 39.023(e), a parent is entitled to access to a copy of each state assessment instrument administered under Section 39.023 to the parent’s child.”  The only exceptions  in 39.023 involve withholding field test questions.  Yet school districts and the TEA have forcefully denied access and argued that they are only required to make general public releases on a schedule created by the legislature.  Obviously, there is a significant difference between a public release and a parental right of access to the assessment instrument administered to the child.

This week, for the first time to our knowledge, a school district has agreed to permit a parent to inspect the STAAR assessment administered to the parent’s child after testing for the day is completed.  The e-mail chain below reflects the clear agreement of Canyon ISD to permit parental inspection of the test instrument after STAAR testing is completed.  TPERN thanks Canyon ISD for complying with the plain language of the law and recognizing the vital role that parents play in the educational preparation and upbringing of their children.  Unfortunately, at this point Canyon ISD is an exception.  They are the one district doing it right.  TPERN urges all Texas school districts to follow the law and permit parental access to the assessment instruments administered to district students.


Parents should note that, as a practical matter, school districts cannot comply with assessment inspection requests once the assessments are returned to the TEA!  Any parent wishing to inspect this week’s STAAR administration assessments at their local schools should immediately make that request in writing.  Please complete an Incident Report online if your access request is denied!

Northside ISD STAAR Math: 100 – 8 = 71

Schools get their hackles up if parents suggest that they are teaching to the STAAR test.  Even though all of our kids know it and tell us, the schools deny it to the ends of the earth.  They assure us that they just follow the curriculum, and it aligns with STAAR, and that the STAAR preparation is just a byproduct of the curriculum they are teaching anyway.  At Garcia Middle School, in Northside ISD, however, the evidence is quite to the contrary.

As with many schools, students have been preparing for the STAAR test by working released tests from last year’s administration.  At Northside ISD, the 8th grade was given the released test as a homework assignment.  Immediately though, the instructions raised questions.  Each of the 53 problems were worth two points, but only one point was awarded for working the problem correctly.  The other point was for using appropriate strategies.


Strategies, in our day, meant things like work the problem; if you aren’t sure, eliminate the obviously wrong answers; if you still aren’t sure, guess if you have it down to two choices.  Today, though, using strategies  has nothing to do with what works to help the student learn.  It is a rote application of a process that somebody thought made a clever mnemonic.  At Garcia MS, the mnemonic is CLUES.


Of course not everyone thinks the same way, or processes information the same way.  One eighth grade honor student apparently tackled his test in a method that made sense to him, and that worked.  Imagine the young student’s surprise when his homework with 49 of 53 problems correct was returned with a grade of 71.


This, of course, led his mother to send an email to the teacher asking about the assignment.  In the response we see that STAAR is not about teaching science, but rather strategies.  The teacher is unashamed and unapologetic about deducting points for correct answers if the answers were derived without using the CLUES process.

teach the test


As the understandably irritated mother put it: “ What do you tell a child? Sorry honey, it doesn’t matter if you get the answers right, or wrong. If they can’t reach into your brain and see that you processed your answers EXACTLY the way they want you to, then you don’t get credit. What kind of insanity is this?”  The mother is planning to appeal this grade.  We’ll keep you updated.

TEA Publishes Misleading SSI Document

We have recently been made aware of a document published by the TEA that implies that 5th and 8th graders who do not pass STAAR reading and mathematics exams cannot be promoted.  This piece of test propaganda completely omits the promotion process created by law by the Texas Legislature, that permits a Grade Placement Committee to make an individualized promotion decision on any child who has not taken or passed the STAAR reading or mathematics examination.  This omission is clearly designed to pressure parents into assenting to STAAR testing that they may feel unnecessary or detrimental to the education of their children.  We call upon the Texas Education Agency to withdraw this document from public use and include factual information on promotion paths on any future publications.

Not the whole story
Not the whole story

Testing Irregularity: Spring ISD Elementary School Communicates Wrong Start Time to Parents

On Thursday April 18, 2014, Hoyland Elementary in Spring ISD sent home a form regarding the STAAR testing that would occur on Tuesday, April 22 and Wednesday April 23rd. The form stated that there would be no visitors, deliveries, etc. during STAAR testing. School would begin at 7:30 am and state testing would begin promptly at 8 am. The form also listed the school times on it as 7:30 – 2:30. Parents were required to put the student’s name, parent’s name, parent’s phone number and then sign the form acknowledging all the information about the test.

An immediate concern was the start time of school and the test. Normally school starts at 8:15 and ends at 3:15. The form clearly told parents that school was going to start 45 minutes earlier than normal. Parents report that in preparation for STAAR testing, the school had been calling daily with automated messages about the kids performing their very best and how important this test is. At no time during the calls did it state the school would be starting early.

When a parent asked a school employee on the day before testing why they were starting school 45 minutes early, the school employee said that was a mistake. According to the school, the campus testing coordinator just used the form from last year when they had different school hours last year. Only the date on the form were changed to reflect the testing procedure for this year. Still it took a parent to ask this question before this was communicated by the school, at all.

We’d like to hear from Hoyland Elementary parents.How many sent their children in to school 45 minutes early? Were the kids really going to be able to “perform their very best” having to wake up and be at school 45 minutes earlier? Were the results scored or marked O for testing irregularity?

– From TPERN Incident Report

How the TEA Forces Schools to Manipulate STAAR Data

In the El Paso Times recently, the paper reported on a petition by the Texas Education Agency to revoke the certifications of 11 educators accused of being part of a cheating scandal.  According to the paper, “[t[he petition accuses most of the respondents of participating in a scheme to falsify federal accountability reports, or knowing of the scheme but doing nothing to stop it.” (Full report here).

Federal accountability reports can cover many things, but we know one thing it covers is the progress of schools, districts and the state in meeting the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements that every school make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  As we explained in our article on Data Manipulation, absences on test days hurt districts more than failed assessments because of the formula for calculating AYP.  The TEA is engaged in a scheme to distort the number of students actually assessed by the STAAR exam.

People may disagree about the STAAR testing system, but one thing we can all agree on is that a student who does not take the test has not been tested.  They have not been assessed.  No data has been captured with which any assessment of academic readiness could possibly be made.  This is true whether the student is sick or present but refuses to be tested.  Any action resulting in a report that claims a student that refuses the test has actually been tested is misleading, if not overtly false.  Yet that is precisely the system that the TEA not only tolerates, but insists that districts implement.  According to Canyon ISD, this directive comes directly from the TEA’s Director of Test Administration.  Yet nobody from the TEA is being investigated or threatened with having their education certificates revoked.

In Amarillo, a parent sent Canyon ISD a letter pointing out that there are two other codes available to accurately report that a student has not been tested, and asking that her daughter, who had refused the assessment, not be reported as having taken the assessment.  In response, the District sent this letter:

we score refused tests

Now this may appear innocuous on its face.  Assigning a zero for not taking a test would be a common tactic in the classroom.  However, with an assessment designed to meet federal accountability standards, the effect goes beyond the score report placed in the student’s file.  It turns into a representation to the federal government and the taxpayers of Texas that the student has actually been assessed.  The student, by Canyon ISD’s own admission, refused to be assessed.  She was not tested in any way.  But consider this data box from the statewide summary report generated by the TEA.

how s becomes a lie

As you can see, the report clearly contemplates that some students will not be tested for reasons other than absence.  Yet not a single student who refuses the test is accurately reported in that category.  Instead, their data is lumped into the number of students actually tested.  Their zero becomes just another student that does not meet minimum standards.  Because there is no score averaging in accountability assessment, a zero means the same thing to a school as a student who fails by one question.  However, for the district and TEA, the zero becomes evidence that the 95% test participation requirement has been met.  These numbers then get placed on federal reports and are used to justify continued receipt of federal funds.  Perhaps it is time for someone to investigate whether the people who came up with this data manipulation tactic are “participating in a scheme to falsify federal accountability reports, or knowing of the scheme but doing nothing to stop it.”

Opting Out and Truancy: A Hollow Threat or Big Stick?

A recent tactic by school districts faced with opt out requests has been to not so subtly suggest to parents that if they keep their children home on STAAR administration and make up days, the schools will report the parent to the appropriate agency for institution of truancy charges. Truancy courts have become an increasingly common tactic used by courts to compel the attendance of the child in the public schools. The charges are criminal in nature and pose the risk of fines up to $500. For that reason, it is important that parents keeping their kids out of school for STAAR testing days be aware of the specifics of their district’s policies. Because each district can have local attendance policies, this article cannot be used for specific advice about your district. However, each district must adhere to the minimums established by the state law. If your absences comport with the state law, districts must recognize them. So what do parents need to know?

1. Truancy charges can only be based on unexcused absences. As a result, you must know what types of absences are excused. The Education Code provides certain absences that MUST be excused, and other types that may be excused at the district’s discretion. This article deals only with the absences that state law requires to be excused. Under section 25.087 of the Education Code, they are as follows:

(b) A school district shall excuse a student from attending school for:
(1) the following purposes, including travel for those purposes:
(A) observing religious holy days;
(B) attending a required court appearance;
(C) appearing at a governmental office to complete paperwork required in connection with the student’s application for United States citizenship;
(D) taking part in a United States naturalization oath ceremony;
(E) serving as an election clerk; or
(F) for a child in the conservatorship of the Department of Family and Protective Services, attending a mental health or therapy appointment or family visitation as ordered by a court under Chapter 262 or 263, Family Code; or
(2) a temporary absence resulting from an appointment with a health care professional if that student commences classes or returns to school on the same day of the appointment.

Most of these excuses are unlikely to coincide with a specific STAAR administration. However, for parents who are Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) there is a “holy day” almost every day, as one saint or another is commemorated by the Church. It may be a saint truly important to your family that merits a day of prayer and contemplation. April 21 is also the First Day of Ridvan in the Baha’i faith, Orthodox Christians commemorate the Holy Martyr Eupsychios on April 22 and wider Christianity recognizes April 23 as St. George Day. Those absences are excusable under state law, and it is improper for the school to inquire into the sincerity of your beliefs.

April Saint Days – Catholic
may catholic saints day
May Saint Days – Catholic

2. Being sick is not automatically excused. Notice what is missing in the statutory list of excused absences — illness. Absences for illness are strictly a local concern and you must be certain to comply with whatever policy your school district has to the letter! Scheduling a doctor’s appointment does not create an excused absence under state law. The statute specifically provides that to be excused for a doctor’s appointment, the student must either start or return to class on the same day as the appointment. If you meet that requirement (even if the child is at school for only five minutes), the absence must be excused.  Many parents utilize this provision by assuring that the child either leaves school for the appointment before STAAR testing begins, or returns to school with insufficient time remaining for the child to take the STAAR assessment.

3. Truancy laws have two components: credit and crime. The first component is what is called the 90% rule. It states that a student “may not be given credit or a final grade for a class unless the student is in attendance for at least 90 percent of the days the class is offered.” (Tex. Educ. Code sec. 25.092 (a)). Missing a week probably won’t put your student at risk, but if they have a lot of other absences, this could be a problem. The 90% rule applies to BOTH excused and unexcused absences, so make sure you count all the absences when you do the math. Also, the 90% is more like a 90% guideline. A student who is in attendance for 75-90% of the classes may be given credit after review by an attendance committee.

4. The crime component may not apply if your child is under age 12. Sec. 25.0951 of the Education Code requires a school to make certain truancy referrals. It is mandatory for the school to refer a student and parent to the appropriate court if the student, without excuse, fails to attend school for “10 or more days or parts of days within a six-month period in the same school year.” It is optional, but permitted, for the school to make the referral if, again without excuse, the student “fails to attend school without excuse on three or more days or parts of days within a four-week period.” The key though, is this: parental liability is tied to student absences under Sec. 25.094. On its face, 25.094 only applies if the student “is 12 years of age or older and younger than 18 years of age.” Threats about truancy referrals for children under age 12 seem to be nothing but bullying and coercion. Whether the parent can still be referred is an open question.  You may wish to consult a criminal attorney about this if you have concerns, however. The age limit does not affect the 90% rule.  Please note, we believe schools will refer parents for absences of children under age 12.  The child should not be liable, and the parents can argue that the statute is vague and does not apply to them, but we believe there is a good chance a court will enforce it at the trial court level.

Note: If you have been threatened with a truancy referral for a child under age 12, please complete an Incident Report so we can track this abusive behavior!!

5. Are there any other options? Yes. If you have a district that is going to make a truancy referral, or insists that your child must sit in the testing room even while refusing the test either on test day or make up day, you do have the ultimate weapon. Withdrawal. Because Texas recognizes home schooling, you can always withdraw your child from public school the day before the STAAR and re-enroll after the last makeup day. The Texas Association of School Boards has advised the schools that they must honor these withdrawal and re-enrollment requests. One funny note from the statute — in order to meet compulsory attendance standards, your home school must include a study on good citizenship. Maybe you can study the constitution or the fundamental liberty interest that parents have in the education of their children!

– Scott Placek