By SHELLY WILKISON
Texas school district administrators are anxious about the start of a legislative session that, like all the ones before it, opens the door to more requirements without additional funding.
But one month before the first gavel sounds, school officials in Liberty Hill and across the state are breathing a temporary sigh of relief. While remaining cautiously optimistic, LHISD Curriculum Director Claudeane Braun said she welcomed recent news that the Governor and some lawmakers want to delay until 2013-2014 implementation of a requirement that an end-of-course exam count as 15 percent of a student’s final course grade.
“We needed more time to work it into our grading system, and it will be good to have some control over how we do that,” she said.
Mrs. Braun said that while Liberty Hill had developed a plan for how to accommodate the state requirement, other districts have not. She said there was still too much confusion regarding how it should be implemented and whether the test results would count toward a student’s overall grade point average.
Legislation was filed last week that calls for the 15 percent rule to be a local option for school districts rather than a state requirement. The idea is one that has the early support of Gov. Rick Perry.
“While we must continue to adhere to our state’s accountability system, we must also recognize the importance of local control,” Gov. Perry said.
“It’s good for the Legislature to step back and look at their own requirements,” said Mrs. Braun. “It opens the door to look at other requirements as well.”
Of even greater concern to Mrs. Braun is a state-mandated cumulative score on end-of-course exams as a requirement for graduation, which so far has not been part of the discussion. She explained that the state set a minimum passing score on the exams and then set a much higher cumulative score that must be reached after four years of exams in a subject.
In math, the subject area where students have the most difficulty, this year’s freshmen must accumulate 10,588 points on end-of-course exams in four years in order to graduate. Mrs. Braun said if students just meet the minimum score on the exam each year, they will not meet the cumulative total points. And the requirement stands, regardless of whether they are passing the class.
While she is hopeful legislators will look at the discrepancy in 2013, in the meantime, local teachers are looking for opportunities to help students improve performance before they fall behind.
Last spring, Texas public school students took the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) exam for the first time. The STAAR replaced TAKS, and the performance standards have still not been released by the state for last spring’s testing.
“We have had little information on this testing system, and as a result, teachers knew less about how to prepare students for it,” said Mrs. Braun.
In English/Language Arts (ELA), a subject in which Liberty Hill students have typically excelled, high school students did not achieve at the same level as they have on previous standardized tests. Mrs. Braun said the results left teachers looking for new strategies.
“It’s (the STAAR writing test) precise and concise. Some (students) ran out of space before they finished,” she said. “This is writing for the 21st Century and this is a game change for us.”
She explained that until now, students have been taught to expand their thoughts, to write more and use more discriptive language. Those strategies work against students on the STAAR exam.
Mrs. Braun said administrators are anticipating increased numbers of students in summer school beginning in 2013. The budget adopted by school trustees in September reflects that. In grades five through eight, students who do not meet the minimum standards on STAAR will be required to retest and summer will be the time for that, while high school students will use the opportunity to avoid falling behind.
“Over time, kids coming up will be better prepared. Our teachers and students will rise to the occasion,” she said, adding that teachers and administrators support methods promoting accountability in the classroom.
“I am for accountability and I like testing to see if kids have learned what the state says is important,” she said. “But, that’s only part of what makes schools really good. There are so many things that can’t be judged by a standardized test.”
As far as tests go, Mrs. Braun said the STAAR is better than the achievement tests of the past, and end-of-course exams cover material taught during that school year without reaching back to courses taken by a student in the past.
“Teachers are going to like the fact that they are going to teach all year long and students will just be tested on that (material) at the end,” she said.
For now, however, the uncertainty of how best to prepare to meet unknown standards is stressful and teachers have grown increasingly weary by the challenge, Mrs. Braun said.
“Creativity (in the classroom) is important,” she said. “Making it (subject matter) all relevant is the key, and it has to be fun for the kids. Why increase the rigor (of teaching the material) if they (students) can’t see where it’s going (how to apply it)?”
She said effective learning in preparation for today’s testing hinges on increased communications between teachers and students. Gone are the days of worksheets that were used to prepare students for test questions.
As legislators consider these issues, Mrs. Braun said she is hopeful that the agenda will also include expanding curriculum options and funding for students planning to bypass college and enter the workforce.
“We have a lot of students who don’t go to college, and we need more options for them,” she said. “Instead of just college ready, students need to be prepared to make a good living. Instead of (the buzz words) ‘college ready,’ how about life ready?”
The Texas Legislature convenes Jan. 8, 2013.