Since 1980, Texas has administered state-mandated tests for accountability purposes. We have had Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS), Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS), Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) and — beginning in the spring of 2012 — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).
We know that the graduating class of 2015, who are beginning eighth grade this year, will be the first group of students required to take and pass 12 end-of-course exams and receive passing grades in all classes to earn a diploma. There are several key understandings that school administrators — particularly curriculum and professional development leaders — need to consider and build into their systems to adapt to the dramatic shift in our state’s accountability system. The emphasis of this article will be to highlight some of these key understandings and then outline how districts might begin the process of building a culture equipped to adapt and change appropriately.
We know from 31 years of testing that the more students are taught what is being tested, the greater likelihood that students will do well on the test. This is the fundamental underpinning to curriculum alignment and Fenwick English’s model of the written, taught and tested curriculum. As we approach the new era of testing, known as STAAR, districts will definitely need to apply the principles of curriculum alignment more deeply and profoundly than ever before. In documents prepared by the state of Texas and placed on its Website, STAAR will continue to be based on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), but at a much more rigorous level.
According to the Texas Education Agency, STAAR will focus on subject matter the students studied that year, as opposed to testing on lessons given over multiple years. Moreover, the end-of-course assessments will cover only the TEKS for a given course, as opposed to the high school level TAKS assessments, which cover TEKS from multiple courses.
STAAR’s purpose is twofold: (1) to strengthen the alignment between what is taught at each grade level and
what is tested for a given course of study, and (2) to better prepare students to succeed in college, their careers and a global economy.
Make no mistake: STAAR is a test of grade-level content and cognitive rigor. So, what is a district to do to prepare teachers and students?
A major priority is that of alignment in curriculum design and delivery as illustrated in Model 1 by Fenwick English. Alignment must be more thorough than surface coverage. It must go to a deeper level around content, context and cognitive rigor — beyond the state assessment. Unlike what districts historically have done with alignment in curriculum design, the need is now more apparent than ever to have instructional delivery alignment, in which teachers understand and can calibrate instruction based on content, context and cognition requirements. Administrators must ensure a tight linkage among the written, tested and taught curriculum.
However, curriculum design is only a third of the alignment model; delivery represents two-thirds of the model. Look at it this way: If one-third of the model isn’t tightly aligned and managed, it can cause problems in two-thirds of the system alignment. It’s imperative that curriculum revisions are based upon strict adherence to the newly revised TEKS and what has been made available through the TEA website regarding the STAAR specification documents.
Another important step is ensuring that teachers are well-versed in the content standards, the new assessment specifications and the direction in which STAAR is headed. This will reduce the ambiguity in their instructional delivery. Teachers constantly make decisions in the classroom that impact alignment — decisions as simple as what questions to ask, what resources to use, which students are assigned to do what task and what types of assessments are given along the way. These are all areas in which misalignment can and will occur unless teachers know better.
The district, therefore, must have a plan with purposeful steps to reduce the ambiguity around delivery. Provide appropriate professional development, design more specificity into curriculum documents, and offer assessment items for teachers so they can understand and reproduce context and cognitive rigor in the work they assign students, as well as in the assessments they give.
Lastly, professional conversations and collaboration must become the hallmark for the cultural shift taking place in our accountability system. The gap between knowing and doing when it comes to the new standards for curriculum and assessments must close. In a time when resources have become so strained and staff has been cut, districts can’t afford to move away from ensuring quality time for teachers. Now, more than ever, is the time for collaboration among peers and learning from one another.
Change is a process, not an event. Planned change requires a compass and a map to culminate in a successful journey to STAAR.