New Standards, Rising Test Scores in Texas: What Does It Mean?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 23, 2015 2 min read
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You’ve heard it hundreds of times since the drumbeat of common-core testing began: Anticipate lower proficiency rates on standardized tests. That’s what happens, people say, when you adopt tough new standards and tests.

Well it’s not what happened in Texas. The Lone Star State implemented math standards in grades 3 to 8 last year that were “dramatically” different than the ones they replaced, according to the Dallas Morning News.

The changes were so dramatic, in fact, that Education Commissioner Michael Williams pledged not to include results of the 3-8 math tests in 2015 accountability calculations, and suspended the requirement that students pass the math tests to be promoted from the 5th and 8th grades.

So did test scores plummet? Nope. Results of the state’s STAAR math test were about the same as, and in some cases better than, the previous year’s.

What happened?

State department of education officials gave credit to the state’s teachers. “They tend to be a crowd that underpromises and overdelivers,” Gloria Zyskowski, the Texas Education Agency’s assessment director, told the newspaper.

Some educators said that students simply performed better than periodic classroom enchmark tests suggested they would. Others wondered whether the test had changed enough that it wasn’t right to compare performance in 2013-14 to performance last year. And there’s another question floating around, too, according to the News: “Is STAAR not precise enough in measuring content knowledge to allow for close comparisons?”

State officials insist that the “scores and passing rates are as comparable as the process can make them” and that cut scores for the two years’ tests represent the same level of proficiency, according to the Dallas newspaper.

Psychometricians will tell you that there are statistical processes that can be used to make scores on one test comparable to scores on a revised version of that test.

But it’s not hard to imagine how all of these questions about the meaning of the test scores might leave parents a bit dazed and confused. Texas didn’t adopt the common core, but parents there no doubt have heard the roaring debate in common-core states about higher standards, new tests, and the warnings about lower proficiency rates and “a new baseline.”

One of the big drivers of accountability and test-score reporting was to give parents a clearer idea of what’s going on in their schools. I’d be curious to know if Texas parents would say, in a poll, that the latest two years of test scores provide that for them.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.