Despite some improvement, El Paso area students continue to fall behind the statewide passing rates on the new state-mandated test and end-of-course exams, preliminary data show.
Most school districts in the county did not meet the average passing rate of 80 percent in all subjects tested in during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the state's recently released test scores of third- through eighth-graders who took the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test.
The new data, released in January, show that all nine El Paso County districts are lagging significantly behind the state average in reading and writing in the End of Course exams. The new results include new test scores from summer retakes.
Scores for the STAAR, given to third- through eighth-grade students, indicate that locally, there is a large dip among the area's eighth-graders in social studies, with an average passing rate of only about 44 percent. Texas Education Agency officials said there were no cumulative scores available for the STAAR at the elementary and middle school levels to compare El Paso students to others across the state.
Locally, however, the largest gap among the districts stems from the Anthony Independent School District, which had an 11 percent passing rate in social studies.
District officials attribute the low scores to three factors: The increased rigor of the test, lack of aligning the curriculum to the state's newer
requirements, and the change to STAAR and end of course exams from the previously mandated Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS test.
The second round of annual testing starts next month, and school administrators are looking to the preliminary data to identify areas that need special focus.
The STAAR end-of-course tests, also known as EOC, were first given to ninth graders during the 2011-12 school year. Preliminary results, released in June of 2012, showed that the students were below the state average. This prompted district administrators to formulate corrective action plans.
A waiver from the TEA allowed students and educators to become accustomed to the new mandates, which had stricter guidelines regarding the curriculum taught inside the classroom.
From extra tutoring, Saturday school, increased professional development and changes to the curriculum, area school districts are trying to improve student scores on the state mandated tests.
Oscar Troncoso, principal and associate superintendent of instruction for the Anthony district, said at the middle school level, social studies teachers received additional training and the district is also making changes to its curriculum to better meet the state's standards, he said.
Realigning a curriculum, or changing it, to meet the state standard is not the same as teaching to the test, Troncoso added.
"I think there's a big misconception with the phrase, 'teaching to the test,'" Troncoso said. "If the state has standards that we have to meet, we need to teach to that standard. As educators, we have to meet these standards and that's not teaching to the test. If the alignment with what is required is not there, then the teacher has to realign themselves."
Clint officials said they began a plan of corrective action in September that included a campus wide survey that showed where improvements were needed.
"All campus administration and teachers have been reviewing the Reporting Categories for each exam and have been providing interventions, instructional resources, and professional development for our staff," said James Littlejohn, assistant superintendent for instruction at the Clint district. "All of these initiatives have been implemented to ensure that students receive quality instruction so that they are successful on the state assessments."
The district also rearranged class periods and added 45 minutes to the English-language curriculum.
With the new initiatives enacted at the Clint district, administrators saw a 22 percent age-point jump in reading scores from 58 percent to 80 percent and an 18 percentage-point increase in writing scores from 47 percent to 65 percent.
But even with the increase, they lagged behind the state's average of 72 percent.
Ahead in math
While the district's students lag behind in writing and reading, cumulative scores indicate the area's districts either met or are ahead of the state in math.
Statewide, 84 percent of students passed Algebra I.
In the El Paso area, the passing rate for the math component ranged from 85 percent to 94 percent. Only the Clint district was behind with 82 percent of the students passing Algebra I.
Most officials agreed that when it came to math, there seemed to be a universal understanding among the students because the language barrier for students with limited english proficiency, was not there.
However, Jim Steinhauser, assistant superintendent for research and evaluation at EPISD, said the high passing rates may be because the passing rate for each subject is measured differently.
"In English the state has higher standards to pass -- for example, you have to have about 50 percent of the answers correct, while with the math and sciences those standards drop," Steinhauser said.
Because the test is new the state is still trying to determine a standard passing score, Steinhauser said.
But other district officials believe that the high test scores in math have more to do with teaching practices.
Cheryll Geach, a science instructional specialist with the Ysleta Independent School District, said the district's math summer camps available to middle school students may contribute to the high scores.
"We think it's critical to the student's learning experience," Geach said. "Algebra I is the gatekeeper to high school math courses and it's best to begin at the early grades."
If similar initiatives can be followed for subjects where the district is behind, it could improve the scores in other areas, Geach said.
Officials with the Socorro Independent School District said they were pleased with their results overall, but said more work had to be done.
"Of course we don't want to just meet a 70 percent passing rate, but being that this is the first time that the students took the STAAR we are pleased with those results," said Joe Espinoza, superintendent for SISD. "But in the following years we are expecting to see a gradual improvement."
Too much testing?
Opponents say there is too much emphasis placed on the test, and that it takes away instructional time from the students.
According to the academic calendar of area school districts, 45 days are allotted to testing students at different grade levels and subjects --not including the time teachers use to prepare students for the test.
There is no minimum amount of time that the district must allot to testing preparation, said DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
"We hear that it can be anywhere from the 45 days to about 60 days of instruction that gets taken away," said Theresa Trevino of the group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. "It varies from school to school and district to district."
The Austin-based organization stemmed from parents and educators who did not want the end-of-course test to affect students' overall grades and ultimately determine whether or not the students could graduate.
Trevino and other advocates said this is unfair because there are other tests that can help determine whether or not the student could be college or career ready.
"There's the SAT and the ACT," Trevino said. "They have assessments to see how career ready or college ready a student is. If you need a state mandated test, then the thing is to limit it."
Steinhauser, said the tests can help keep schools and teachers accountable.
"But I don't think there's a benefit for having 15 end-of-course exams," Steinhauser said. "I think there is a benefit for accountability of a school and I think standardized testing is one way to look at it. But there needs to be some local control, there needs to be some say so from the community. We need to look at how they (students) are doing on the tests and make sure they are getting the education and the resources they deserve."
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