Parents asked to join the fight against ‘harmful’ STAAR tests

By Betsy Dolan

Hoping to tap into parental frustration over high-stakes STAAR testing, a student advocacy group called TAMSA or Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, is hoping to build enough statewide muscle to pressure lawmakers into modifying Texas’ current standardized testing system.

“We feel like we can have an impact this session,” said Susan Kellner, one of TAMSA’s founders. “They don’t want 1,000 angry moms at the capitol in Austin. They know the tsunami is coming.”

Fort Bend County’s three school districts–Fort Bend ISD, Lamar CISD and Stafford MSD–invited Kellner and co-founder Karen Pike to speak to parents and community members about TAMSA’s goals on December 12.

At the center of TAMSA’s mission is the overemphasis on high-stakes STAAR tests, specifically the so called 15% rule–where test scores on each of the required End of Course exams will count for 15% of the student’s final grade.  In November, Commissioner of Education, Michael Williams, announced that the 15% rule would be waived for a second year.

“I believe that parent outrage has led to the 15% being diverted and perhaps permanently eliminated,” Kellner told the audience.  “TAMSA believes in accountability.  We just don’t believe that adding more tests is the way to achieve it.”

Instead, TAMSA is hoping that in the 2013 state legislative session, lawmakers enact what the organization hopes are “meaningful, fair and appropriate” assessment tests.  TAMSA would like to see lawmakers limit the number of standardized tests for all students; reduce the number of end-of-course exams and the 15% rule as well as remove what Kellner calls “college barriers”.

To be eligible to attend a Texas four-year university, a student must graduate on the recommended or distinguished achievement program. Both programs require students to pass all 15 end-of-course exams and meet a cumulative score requirements in each of the four content areas. For students to graduate on the recommended program, they must achieve a Level II performance on English III and Algebra II. For the distinguished program, they must achieve a Level III performance on English III and Algebra II.

“If you don’t do all of that, you are not going to a four-year college,” she said. “That’s not really fair to students. You might have students who are really good in humanities or arts and never intend to be an engineer or doctor. This prevents them from going to college to pursue whatever their gift is.”

TAMSA also takes issue with Pearson Assessments, the only vendor Texas uses for testing and textbooks.   From 2000-2015, $1.2 billion of state taxpayer dollars will have been sent to Pearson which Kellner said amounts to $50,400 every seven hours, enough to hire three teachers per day.

“This is a big money business and Pearson has controlled the floor for the last decade and a half. When (lawmakers) take 5.4 billion from (public education) but don’t cut the testing contract, it becomes a horrible cycle and we have the power to break it,” she said.

TAMSA believes there is reason to be hopeful as the 83rd legislative session prepares to begin in three weeks.  Senator Dan Patrick, who chairs the Public Education Committee and who has advocated for private school vouchers, an extremely volitile issue in the public school arena,  has said he plans to take on the standardized testing issue and how best to hold schools accountable.

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