Improve Your Children’s Learning With Insights From Standardized Testing

elephant rider standardized testing personalized learning

Sometimes, when I am pondering the debate over standardized testing in Texas, I think back about an experience I had as a college student. I majored in history, but I sought out courses from a particular professor in the Business Administration department because, not only was he a good lecturer, but also his tests were consistently fair. He taught marketing, but his Ph.D. was in psychology, and he had studied psychometrics—the psychological theory or technique of mental measurement. He used data to make his tests better each time; for example, he would discard any questions that didn’t correlate with overall scores. As a result, I felt like as long as I studied hard I would do well, and the tests would accurately measure what I had learned from the course.

It’s been a journey for me to learn to see the STAAR test in the same way. I’ve heard from many families and teachers who have negative feelings about the STAAR test. They feel like it does not meet their expectations for validity, reliability, or fairness. The current system of standardized testing has its pros and cons, but as a practical matter, families who are trying to improve our children’s learning can gain insights from STAAR report cards. Nathan Balasubramanian, Ph.D., also known as “Dr. B,” is the founder, CEO, and Superintendent of 7Cs Academy, a proposed charter school. While I was learning about the 7Cs Academy school model from Dr. B, I also picked his brain about his background in psychometrics and standardized testing. He explained how, since 2017–18, while ETS has managed STAAR testing, the report cards have included data that parents can use to find personalized learning resources for their students. I want to share this information with families who can use this knowledge during the pandemic, and encourage stakeholders to look at standardized testing in a new way.

Reading STAAR Report Cards

In Texas, education policy leaders have a vision of a highly educated workforce—the 60x30TX plan—that will be ready for the jobs of the future. But we are still a long way from meeting those ambitious goals. The curriculum standards—the TEKS—and assessments—STAAR, etc.—are meant to track whether students are mastering the subjects they will need to know to succeed in college. Teachers and experts like Dr. B work to draft and evaluate test questions to make sure they align with the TEKS, they measure what they are meant to evaluate, and they are at the right level of difficulty for that grade level test. Then, the questions are released, and the test writers have to get back to work.

The onset of STAAR testing season in the spring can be stressful for students, families, and teachers. We all know that testing and being evaluated is part of life, but sometimes schools make a big deal out of the test and add unnecessary pressure. At my kids’ school, they treat STAAR testing as routine, like the MAP testing they do periodically throughout the school year. Still, I tend to feel nervous when I get the emails with links to my kids’ STAAR report cards.

Have you accessed a STAAR report card before? The portal is at TexasAssessment.com. You will need a six-character unique access code and your child’s birthday.

The STAAR report card is surprisingly user friendly, but it can also seem dense with information. Dr. B helped me focus on some key numbers on my daughter’s report card. On the test results tab, the scale score tells us whether a student is in one of four categories: Masters Grade Level, Meets Grade Level, Approaches Grade Level, or Did Not Meet Grade Level. On other tabs, I can see how my daughter answered particular questions, and even read the actual questions. But Dr. B advises against focusing on the questions; he recommends using the report card as a tool for the future.

Further down the page, the report card offers lexile scores for reading and quantile scores for math. The purpose of a lexile score is to help match students with reading materials that are at the right level of difficulty. Students learn best when they are doing work at the right difficulty level. If it’s easy and fast, they get bored. If it’s hard and slow, they get frustrated. If it’s just right, they will have fun and feel challenged—a state of flow. It’s even better when they are reading something on a subject that they care about, whether that’s sports, animals, mysteries, or something else.

The parent portal includes a link to a Find a Book Tool that allows you to enter a lexile score and an area of interest to search for book recommendations. For my daughter, I entered an estimate of her lexile score, searched for fantasy books, and got hundreds of suggestions. With this information, I can log in to the library catalog, place holds on several of these books, and pick them up soon so my daughter can start reading them.

A quantile score works the same way, but with math skills. Dr. B recommends using Math@Home to find materials, including videos and problem sets, that will be at the right challenge level to help your students grow in math.

Unlocking Personalized Learning

Now that I have the secret decoder ring to turn STAAR report cards into something useful, I want other parents to know how to unlock these resources, too. It’s more than just checking out books or downloading math problems; it’s about setting ambitious goals for how much growth our children can make each year. In our discussion, Dr. B referred to a quote by Norman Vincent Peale: “I believe that if you want to get somewhere, you must decide definitely where you want to be or what you want to accomplish.” We need to think in terms of setting goals and executing strategies to get there.

Parents have a role to play in making sure that the system is serving their own students well, and that the district as a whole is setting meaningful goals. Dr. B shared examples of parent voices—reactions from real families who learned to read their children’s STAAR report cards. One family was surprised that their son, who was consistently testing above grade level, had actually lost progress over the past year.

As parents, we want our own kids to excel, but the accountability system has incentives that sometimes don’t make sense. Dr. B explained that schools tend to focus on the students who are scoring low to bring them up to the middle. The system assumes that students who are high performing are also growing, but that may not be true. Parents need to see the scores and make sure their students are getting the support they need to keep making progress. Personalized learning means that students who are testing the “masters” range will still be challenged and growing.

On the 7Cs Academy website, parents can access an app to explore their own children’s schools. Making the connection between our own children’s report cards, to school and district report cards, helps parents to become effective stakeholders and advocates for improving the quality of education in our community.

Looking at Standardized Testing in a New Way

Looking at my daughter’s STAAR report card, I no longer see it as a snapshot of a particular time period; now I see it as a tool to plan her learning for two or three years to come. Because of the pandemic, no STAAR tests were administered in 2020. My daughter has only taken the STAAR once, in 2019, but I can estimate a year of growth and look for reading and math resources that will suit her now. My son has taken the STAAR test for several years; his 2019 report card shows data from 2018 as well, so I can see trends. Now that I understand how to read the STAAR report card, I hope the 2021 STAAR test is administered as planned. We need to know where things stand and make plans to fill the gaps.

I now have a better understanding about how these elements are meant to work together: TEKS to STAAR, report card to lexile and quantile scores, and books and lessons that give students just enough challenge to help them grow. But I also appreciate that it takes more than just presenting these materials to my kids for effective learning to happen; students need to be in the right mindset to learn. Dr. B has developed a set of core principles for 7Cs Academy that include elements of social emotional character development.

To help me understand the emotional intelligence side of learning, Dr. B customized a story for me to share with my daughter. We read together the story about “Talking Treasure” (our inner voice), and my daughter agreed that it would be a helpful tool for teaching children how to recognize their emotions. My daughter said that she does this herself, and gave the example of asking herself if she was feeling restless and wanted to play in the backyard, or if her hands were feeling tired from swinging on the monkey bars. This year, we have shared numerous posts about social emotional learning, including posts about mindfulness (in parenting, with yoga), understanding and managing our emotions, and expressing ourselves through crafts (pants and masks). The broader lesson is that we need to take care of ourselves at a deeper level so that our higher minds can function. Dr. B made the analogy of a tiny rider—our cognition and conation—riding a huge elephant, our motivation.

Standardized testing may seem like the furthest thing from our minds right now. We are all feeling stressed from the disruptions caused by Covid-19. I know my children’s teachers and principals are working hard, but I worry about whether they are making good progress while doing distance learning. It’s a relief to know how we can use STAAR report cards to find personalized learning resources so our children can work at the right level of challenge and make the most efficient progress. In the future, when we have new data to work with, this same process can help us find personalized learning that can help students catch up. I am learning to look at STAAR testing in a new way, now that I know how to use the report cards to access personalized learning resources for my children, and I hope you will, too.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Nathan Balasubramanian, Founder, CEO, and Superintendent of 7Cs Academy, speak with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on October 21, 2020 at 4 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Nathan Balasubramanian (Dr. B) is a scholar-practitioner. He serves as the Chief Education Officer of 7CsThrive. He is also the Chief Academic Officer of 7Cs Academy. He knows and understands the value of whole child education. He is determined to make whole child education accessible and available to every child. The Triangle Model is one of his innovations. Most recently, Dr. B served as the Executive Director of School Improvement and Accountability at Manor Independent School District in Texas. Prior to joining the Manor ISD team in November 2017, Dr. B served in the rank of Assistant Superintendent at Broward County Public Schools as their founding Executive Director of Strategy and Continuous Improvement for five years.  Dr. B holds a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Educational Leadership and Innovation from the University of Colorado (USA), a master’s in educational management from the University of Sheffield (UK), and a master’s in physics from the University of Madras (India).

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Inga Cotton

Parent activist and founder of San Antonio Charter Moms. Raising two children to be independent adults who do good in the world.

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