STAAR logo. Photo courtesy of the Texas Education Agency / The Texas Tribune.
STAAR logo. Photo courtesy of the Texas Education Agency / The Texas Tribune.

Elementary and middle school students appear to be performing better on required state exams after four years of stagnant scores, according to passing rates the Texas Education Agency released Thursday for 2016 exams. But the improvement is compared to old passing standards that no longer apply and which some critics of the current test say are too low of a bar.

Late last year, then-Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced he would increase the number of questions 3rd through 8th graders would have to get right on 2016 exams in order to pass. Students in those grades take exams on reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies.

Compared to the old passing standards, 3rd through 8th graders this year performed better on 13 of 17 the exams than they did in 2015, some by significant margins. But compared to the new, higher ones, they performed better on only six assessments and worse — or the same — on 11 of them.

The difference in performance under the old and new passing standards was particularly stark for math exams.

Under the old passing standards, performance for all grades improved from last year with passing rates in the upper 70% range. But under the new, harder passing standards, students in most grades — 3rd, 6th, 7th and 8th — performed worse with passing rates in the lower 70% range. (4th graders did better and 5th graders performed about the same.)

Still, 5th and 8th graders improved on science exams under both passing standards while 8th graders improved on social studies exams.

The improvement as compared to the old passing standards “reflects the day-in, day-out hard work of teachers in the classroom throughout our state,” said Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Williams’ successor, in a statement.

The new education chief noted that progress came despite widespread problems school districts reported with this year’s STAAR administration under a new testing vendor. Those technical and logistical issues prompted Morath last month to cancel a final retesting for 5th and 8th graders who hadn’t passed required exams — students in those grades are supposed to pass reading and math exams to advance to the next grade — and also to drop that grade retention consequence.

“Despite unanticipated issues associated with the transition to a new testing vendor, Texas students are generating results for a majority of the grades 3-8 assessments that are better than prior years, providing additional confidence in their use,” Morath said.

But parents involved in the blossoming anti-testing movement were quick to dismiss the announcement. They view the test as developmentally inappropriate and unnecessarily high-stakes.

“Test scores are meaningless,” read a post on Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests, one of many anti-STAAR Facebook pages.

Statewide STAAR performance reports can be viewed here and here

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Top image: STAAR logo. Photo courtesy of the Texas Education Agency for The Texas Tribune.

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Kiah Collier reports on the environment and public education for the Texas Tribune, where she began working in July 2015. Since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 with degrees in...