School district, academic centers prepare students for testing change

September 11, 2011
Just as Texas students may have been getting used to the biggest standardized test each year, the state threw them a longer, more critical curveball.

They will be taking for the first time this spring the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test, and McKinney ISD an

d academic tutoring centers in McKinney are doing their part to make sure the students are ready.

“We’ve been working with our regional service provider since last spring to figure out ways to phase in some of the EOC (end-of-course) material,” said Joe Miniscalco, senior d

irector of secondary curriculum and instruction for McKinney ISD. “When we were writing curriculum all summer, we did it with STAAR and EOCs in mind.”

The STAAR will be used for the 12 end-of-course (EOC) assessments for high school students, mandated by Senate Bill 1031 in 2007, and for the new grades 3-8 assessments mandated by House Bill 3 in the 2009 state legislative session.

Students set to graduate in 2015 will be the first students who must pass the STAAR, as well as their classes, in order to earn their diploma. The grades 3-8 STAAR tests in reading and mathematics must be linked from grade to grade and to performance expectations for the English II and Algebra II EOC assessments, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

“It’s a more rigorous assessment that’s going to cause kids to think more critically,” Miniscalco said. “The state is increasing the expectations. It’s a longer test with more questions, and they have less time to take it.”

Huntington Learning Center (HLC) of McKinney, located off Eldorado Parkway, works with students in the summer, during after-school hours and on the weekends. Center director Melissa Guerrero has taken steps to become a STAAR expert and will work closely with area schools, teachers and parents so that the center provides a supplemental academic program that’s better aligned with STAAR criteria.

“If kids start prepping for an exam a month out, it may be too late to improve certain academic resources that go back years,” said Kerry Modawell, owner of HLC in McKinney. “The STAAR test is going to be more rigorous, and we address each of the readiness standards that it assesses.”

The STAAR and EOC assessments, which are taken at the high school level, have replaced the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), the statewide annual assessment test since 2003. Miniscalco said that in addition to being longer and allowing less time in which to take them, the assessments will be more content-based and will test students more on what they learn in class during the year.

“They require kids to think deeper,” he said. “Each one adds a new layer of rigor for teachers and students.”

Academics Plus, a supplemental education provider off Ridge Road in McKinney, also tutors students during the summer, after-school and weekend hours, with a focus on reading and mathematics. Melinda Crenwelge, PhD., director of Academics Plus, said that the center’s educational approach would not change much in spite of the new assessment test.

“We teach fundamental reading and mathematics skills,” she said. “No matter what tests the kids are asked to take, they need those strong reading and math skills, so our program will stay pretty much the same.”

Modawell said that STAAR came about because the TAKS was getting too easy, that nearly entire schools were scoring 95 to 100 percent on it. Thus, he said, the state revamped the assessment test and gave third through eighth graders four hours to take theirs.

He and Guerrero researched STAAR and discovered that STAAR tests address specific grade-level curriculum and that the focus is on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) most critical to assess, called readiness standards.

Modawell said that through its more than 1,000 pieces of curriculum, the HLC is already capable of accommodating any tweaks in test preparation that STAAR initiates.

“We already have a battery of tests that assess kids’ past, present and future skills,” he said. “We get a good look at where they’re at, and we have the curriculum to design a program that can help fix what’s missing.”

Both HLC and Academics Plus have seen an increase in students needing their services over the past few years as standardized testing has become increasingly important. Many of those students started asking for help over the summer.

They likely wanted to be extra ready for another change in their academic assessment.

“Summers are always very busy,” Crenwelge said. “Students get more nervous the closer it gets to test time, so it’s better for them to avoid high stress situations and start preparing early.”

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