Reaching for the STAARs: Students improve on state tests

HARLINGEN — Well, it’s made a difference.

Harlingen school teachers last year put more effort into engaging their students, drawing them deeper into the learning process. Preliminary test results show it’s working.

“We are optimistic the work we are doing is moving our district forward,” said Alicia Noyola, chief academic officer for the school district.

“We are happy with the scores,” she said. “I think it validates a lot of the work we’re doing.”

Preliminary results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, show the school district’s passing rate increasing several percentage points in five of the core classes: Algebra I, Biology, English I, English II, and U.S. History.

For example, last year 50 percent of the district’s freshmen passed the English I exam. That number increased to 58 percent this year. In U.S. History, 83 percent of the district’s sophomores passed last year, and that number jumped to 93 percent this year.

Students recognized the significance of the increase. Kennedy Boykin, 17, said after last year’s scores were found to be below the state average, the district began working harder to improve student performance.

“My teachers made it really hands-on,” said Boykin, who will be a senior at Harlingen High School.

“They’d sit down and bring us into the conversation,” she said. “They’d show us PowerPoint.”

This is more effective than simply handing everyone a book and telling them what to read.

“They’d really teach it to us,” she said.

Jesse Gonzalez, who teaches algebra and geometry at Early College High School, has been hearing plenty of enthusiastic conversation about the test scores.

“We are pleased about the tests,” Gonzalez said. “We’re really happy the district is doing a lot better.”

New strategies

Gonzalez tries to simplify math so students can understand the concepts better. He also uses various strategies for different students. Gonzalez, who also teaches tutorials in college algebra and pre-calculus, recalls helping a student survive her math crisis.

He gave a shout-out to the school district’s support of teacher development.

“Every year we have different ideas, different teaching methods,” Gonzalez said. “The Harlingen school district provides us with the opportunity to attend workshops.”

He himself appreciates the new online textbooks the district had provided. The textbooks allow him to teach online. He can make assignments and students can complete those assignments on various devices such as iPads or iPhones. They can then turn them in online.

“They allow me to teach online,” he said.

The five exams are taken by freshmen, sophomores and juniors as a requirement for graduation. Students in grades third through eighth also take STAAR exams in math, reading, writing, science and social studies. However, those are used more for tracking a students’ progress.

“That gives us a better idea of what we’re looking at,” Noyola said.

The district has several initiatives aimed at ensuring student success. Each year, the Connect to Success program sends teams of HCISD administrators, members of the Parental Involvement Department, and community leaders to visit the homes of individuals who have left school for any number of reasons.

They’re encouraged to return and earn their diplomas, and many of them do. Board member George McShan has voiced his concern numerous times about the difficulties faced by those who don’t have a high school diploma. To him, a diploma means the difference between someone being a “tax payer” and a “tax user.”

Noyola said the district focuses on each individual student.

“We really target student areas of need,” she said. “We use data to drive our intervention. It’s a call for us to do intervention. We determine the instruction. Every child is an individual … Our teachers will do whatever it takes.”

The district, under the guidance of the 2014 Strategic Plan, has been implementing all sorts of initiatives including innovative teaching methods and professional development.

Teaching tools include authentic learning in which students apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios. Those could include robotics in which they apply their knowledge of science and math.

Teachers are perfecting their practice by honing their skills in the classrooms. They develop new teaching strategies and work on the way they present themselves. They also learn how to ask better questions which engage students more fully into classroom activities.

The Strategic Plan emphasizes the four Cs, which are collaborative learning, critical thinking, creativity, and communication. All of this ties together with the purpose of equipping students to succeed in the workforce. And it also translates into better test scores.

The plan also addresses hiring and retaining the very best teachers available.

“That’s one of the biggest strengths about what we are doing,” said Shane Strubhart, school district spokesman.

The scores will not be official until the accountability ratings are released Aug. 15. Those scores will include such categories as post-secondary readiness, student achievement, and closing performance gaps.

New challenges

The school district faced new challenges this year with regard to the scores from the STAAR – Accommodated and the STAAR – Linguistics exam. STAAR –A is taken by students in special education classes. STAAR – L is administered to students who are not fluent in English. This includes bilingual and English as a Second Language students. The mystatesman.com website says the standards for this test were increased a couple of years ago. And this year the results are being included in the overall ratings of districts throughout Texas.

“That could potentially pose a change,” said Noyola, who appeared ready for the challenge.

Lori Romero, administrator for elementary education, said raising the standards on the STAAR-A has created problems for children barely able to complete the test already.

The combination of the STAAR – A and the STAAR – L with the regular STAAR showed only slightly different numbers. The one significant change was in the biology scores, which dropped from 85 percent to 83 percent when combined with the other test scores.

The full implication of this change will be revealed when the accountability ratings are released Aug. 15.

DeEtta Culbertson, spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, said adjustments have been made to ensure the scores don’t adversely affect overall ratings for districts.

“They have to be comparable to the regular STAAR,” she said. “It has to be the same level of ability.”

She said there is a way to calculate whether a test for a student in special education is at the same level as that for students taking the regular STAAR. It’s the same concept as someone saying $100,000 many years ago is comparable to $1 million today.

“By including these test results in the accountability system, it will encourage districts to assist students with disabilities regardless.” Culbertson said.

Standards for passing the STAAR exams will gradually increase until 2022.

Noyola spoke hypothetically about a test in 2022 which requires answering 45 questions correctly.

“They let you break it in,” she said. “Instead of requiring 45 questions now, it’s 38, then 40, 44, until you finally hit 45.”

Culbertson said the increase won’t be made in the number of correct answers but calculated through a formula.

This staircasing of higher standards each year allows teachers to plan accordingly, Noyola said.

Back on the front lines, Gonzalez at ECHS has a plan that apparently works. It’s called practice, practice, practice.

“I am very pleased with the test scores,” he said. “I’m really happy the district did a lot better.”

Within the realms of math, algebra, calculus and physics, the possibilities for practicing new approaches and strategies are endless. The school district seems to have taken up the habit of practicing perpetual change and achieving results at the same time.