Ollie Storm Elementary School is located Southwest of downtown and is part of the San Antonio Independent School District.
Student scores on STAAR exams are a key factor in how schools are rated by the state. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Educators use the term “high-stakes testing” to describe Texas’ standardized STAAR exams, and this year, the stakes are indeed high at six schools in the San Antonio Independent School District and other local districts.

The State’s pass-fail accountability system rests heavily on student performance on STAAR exams, set to begin Tuesday. When students perform well, campuses receive a “met standard” – or passing – grade, but if students struggle, campuses get an “improvement required” – or failing – rating.

If a campus receives a failing grade for five consecutive years after 2017-18, the Texas Education Agency must intervene by either closing a school or appointing a board of managers to govern a school district. Because the TEA implemented this provision in 2012, this year’s STAAR results will place chronically failing campuses at risk of state intervention for the first time.

Fifty-two of the more than 8,700 campuses statewide face the state intervention deadline. Six of those schools are within SAISD, and three of those campuses face an immediate threat of state intervention: Tafolla Middle School, Rodriguez Elementary School, and Miller Elementary School.  In addition, the TEA will implement a new accountability system in 2019, with grades ranging from A to F, that brings uncertainty to campuses and districts.

“That’s the crystal ball, right? We just don’t know,” SAISD Deputy Superintendent Pauline Dow said of the role STAAR tests will play in the future of her district’s campuses.

In the meantime, SAISD is working to find ways to turn around its failing schools before the TEA intervenes. Over the past year, the district has used provisions of a new state law to give some of its campuses more time to improve. Irving Middle School will close following the 2018-19 school year and reopen as Irving Academy. Stewart Elementary will become Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary School through a new partnership approved in March with a charter school operator.

SAISD’s board of trustees approved partnerships with Relay Graduate School of Education for Ogden and Storm elementary schools, both of which have received “improvement required” grades for at least three consecutive years.

A law passed in the 2017 legislative session allows a district to delay the accountability system for two years by partnering with a charter operator, higher education institution, nonprofit, or government entity. If the school fails to achieve a “met standard” rating within two years, the accountability process will resume.

To achieve a passing grade, schools must hit target scores in three of four categories: student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps, and postsecondary readiness.

If a campus misses the target score in student achievement but still checks off student progress, or vice versa, it can still rank as having “met standard.” This provision allows campuses that either have very much or very little to improve in terms of student achievement to still make the grade. While TEA’s grade doesn’t rely exclusively on STAAR, the exam results are a large portion of the grading process.

STAAR exams, taken by students in grades 3-8, assess reading, math, and writing. High school students also take STAAR tests for end-of-course exams.

Even though Ogden, Storm, Stewart, and Irving have some reprieve from the threat of state intervention, other schools feel pressure for their students to perform well on this week’s STAAR tests. Tafolla Middle School, Rodriguez Elementary School, and Miller Elementary School have received four consecutive years of “improvement required” ratings, and could face further state action.

Traci Smith, who previously served as principal of SAISD’s Stewart Elementary, now leads Harlandale ISD’s Stonewall Flanders Elementary School. Stonewall Flanders has been ranked “improvement required” for two consecutive years and had to approve a state-mandated turnaround plan in January.

Stonewall Flanders began preparations for the April STAAR exams in August. Smith told the Rivard Report that at this point in the year, classes are entirely focused on review, because “if they don’t know it by now, there is not a lot [the campus] can do before Tuesday.”

Smith said the school uses data to identify which students are likely to master the test, meet the test’s standards, or fall short of passing. Separating students into these groups allows educators to create custom lessons based on specific needs. It also allows administrators to start preparing for additional testing in May, when students who didn’t pass the STAAR the first time get a second chance.

“We have already looked at the kids and already identified the ones who we think will be very close to passing next week or who we think won’t pass next week,” she said. “Every week we are reviewing data.”

Stonewall Flanders Elementary School Principal Traci Smith (far right) works with teachers tasked with helping students prepare for the STAAR test. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Teachers at Stonewall Flanders certainly feel the pressure, Smith said, describing them as “stressing, but not stressed out.”

The school also offered additional aid to teachers by reassigning instructional support staff and tutors on campus to serve the classrooms that will be taking the tests.

Gregory Rivers, principal of Ball Academy, is also familiar with trying to turn around a school’s test results on the State’s prescribed timeline. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the TEA graded the campus, then called Ball Elementary “improvement required” because it failed to make the grade in postsecondary readiness, student achievement, and closing performance gaps.

Rivers said the school worked to improve its STAAR scores by trying to convince students that intelligence isn’t a fixed asset only for those who are naturally gifted. He said the school emphasized a “growth mindset” to show the importance of learning. Ball Academy also worked to align its lessons to the test’s core principles, rather than to questions that might appear on the exam.

Dow said this type of alignment is key – schools shouldn’t focus on teaching to the test, but should teach lessons that help students learn the test’s fundamental concepts.

“The way for students to do well is to learn the standards deeply,” she said. “The test is a subset of those standards. If you are only teaching some of the standards, you are trying to cover a lot of ground and cutting corners so that kids are missing things.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s exams, Dow said that while the existing STAAR test does help identify student achievement and progress, it shouldn’t be the only assessment the State of Texas uses.

“We shouldn’t use [STAAR] as the only way we assess what kids know and what they are able to do because that test cannot measure all of that,” she told the Rivard Report. “It has to be multiple measures. We have to have multiple ways of measuring what kids know and are able to do with respect to the standards, because it is also about their social, emotional growth and development. … I am not in favor of only relying on a high-stakes test.”

In 2016, Dow sat on the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, a group tasked by the Texas Legislature to suggest improvements to the way Texas tests its students and grades its schools and districts. The commission submitted a list of recommendations to the governor prior to the 2017 legislative session that included proposals for year-round, computer-based assessments, locally developed writing tests, and streamlining the standards on which STAAR is based.

Lawmakers didn’t implement the report’s recommendations during the 2017 legislative session.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.