Open letter to parents of advanced middle school students

If you have a son or daughter currently enrolled in grade six through eight at a Texas public school, and if they are taking a high school creditable course (Algebra I, English I, Biology), there is something you should know.  The district you live in will, in all likelihood, require your student to take two separate STAAR tests in that subject this spring. And it is just as likely that your student will not receive direct instruction for one of those tests.

A common example, though by no means the only one, is for middle school students taking Algebra I (most commonly in eighth grade, though I have heard of kids taking Algebra I in seventh or even sixth). Due to the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the recently passed Texas House Bill 5, the very real possibility exists that those students will be forced to take an Algebra I End of Course (EOC) test (since they are enrolled in that class) in addition to an eighth grade math test (since they are, in fact, in eighth grade).  Keep in mind that the eighth grade math standards (TEKS) are quite different from the Algebra I standards. It is certainly true that these students have already shown an aptitude for math, so many of them will probably not have an issue meeting the passing standard for the eighth grade test, but the following scenario is certainly possible:

Susie Sunshine is passing the Algebra I course with a B average. She takes the Algebra I EOC test in April and easily meets the passing standard on that test, actually coming close to the commended score. But the story is much different on the eighth grade math test. Since she has been instructed in linear and quadratic equations and all the applications that are contained within them, there hasn’t been a whole lot of work with proportions, dilations, reflections, mixed numbers and decimals. The latter two are certainly used in Algebra, but calculators are also allowed on the Algebra I test, whereas there is no such allowance for the eighth grade test. So, Susie struggles on the eighth grade math test, to the point that she just misses the passing standard. According to state law, and for that matter NCLB, she must show proficiency on the eighth grade test before she can be promoted to ninth grade, the algebra results be damned. She will get two more whacks at meeting the passing standard for the eighth grade test, but let’s say she falls ill on the date of the second re-take and the family vacation that had been planned all year falls on the third re-take. Back to eighth grade she goes, even though she has a high school math credit already in her pocket.

I can already hear the response of legislators and district personnel:

‘There is no way Susie would be back in eighth grade. There is a process called a Grade Placement Committee (GPC) that can override the mandate that students pass each eighth grade STAAR test and move them along to high school. Plus, are you really telling me that Susie wouldn’t meet the passing standard (currently about 40%) on the eighth grade math test? Surely that isn’t too much to ask.’

There are several issues with this response. First, the overuse and, frankly, abuse, of the GPC’s power to override the mandate has resulted in a raft of high school freshmen that are simply ill-prepared to be there. In Susie’s case would it be justified to move her on? Of course. But I would bet money that a very large proportion of middle school students know of this gaping loophole. If they barely scrape by and pass the class, a GPC will rarely have the stones to withhold the student. Even if they don’t pass the class the GPC will often still promote the student. And the reverse is often true as well…if the student passes the STAAR test, that almost assures them a ticket to high school (after some creative grade editing the last few weeks of the school year). I have had students look me in the eye and say “Mr. Hamric, it doesn’t matter if I pass the test or not, I’ll still get promoted. My older brother didn’t pass anything a couple years ago and he went on to high school.” I don’t have much of a response to that, because it is true.

The second issue is with the passing standard itself. It is true that the passing standard is around 40% (called Phase I, it was actually 37.5% on the 2013 eighth grade math STAAR test). The passing standard was scheduled to increase to a whopping 52% (Phase II) for this school year, but the Texas Education Agency earlier stated that they would stay in the Phase I level for at least this year. Katie bar the door in a couple years when the passing standard for Phase III moves to an almost unthinkable 63%.  

Please excuse my facetiousness in those last few lines, but I find it absurd that the state of Texas apparently believes that knowing 40% of a subject is reasonable proof of mastery. That being said, to measure a student’s knowledge on a standardized test is, I believe, inherently unfair and damaging to those students (see my earlier post on stifling creativity). Further, these tests have become less a measure of the skill set of the student and more a measure of if the student can dig through the layers of semantics and tricks that the psychometricians have put into virtually every question.  Before I get onto another whole soapbox on the veracity of these tests, I’ll just say that educators should be allowed to authentically assess their students’ knowledge and growth through the school year. (I can again hear the accountability sect raise their voices, but I’ll leave that response to another time.)

It should be noted that the Texas Commissioner of Education has requested an extension to the NCLB waiver that was granted earlier in the fall that would specifically address middle school students taking Algebra I, effectively releasing them from the burden of double testing. We are anxiously awaiting the response from the US Department of Education, but this request does not address any other subject.  A student taking Biology in eighth grade will be expected to take two science tests and an eighth grade student taking English I will be expected to take two English tests.

That being said, I strongly encourage all parents of middle school students, and in particular advanced middle school students, to speak to principals, school boards and everyone else to the end that your student does not have to be tested in subjects they may not be actually taking. Is it the current policy? Yes. Does that make it right? Nope.

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