It seems every year we have the what we call the, “STAAR Test Panic” at our centers. The panic usually has two parts. The first part is the flurry of worksheets sent home with the student so they can start practicing STAAR test questions. The kids usually come into our centers asking for help, we connect the dots and they do the flurry of STAAR test questions the teachers assign. This usually last for about 6-8 weeks leading up to the week of STAAR testing and then everything goes silent during the week when testing is administered. The students are exhausted, not just from the test, but the stress leading up to the test. I dare say our poor teachers feel the same relief that the STAAR test is over, but they remain worried that their efforts to prepare the students did not get the results they wanted or needed.

As far as the STAAR test math questions are concerned, there is what appears to be an overlooked reason for this stress for all parties - students, parents, teachers and administrators; but before I outline the reason and solution, I think we need some context and history on the STAAR test.

In as much as math is concerned, the STAAR test is designed to ensure (BTW, it is not meant to torment) that students have mastered the skills outlined in Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or better known as the TEKS. Interestingly, you can look up the TEKS for math on the Texas Education Association website. They are broken down into elementary, middle, and high school standards and they are very straight forward. The STAAR test is written or designed to test these skills. We often hear from parents that they dislike the test and they wonder if the test is really a measure of their students’ ability in math.

Before we get into grading, let’s look at the 2018 STAAR test results for 6^{th} Grade Math. The total number of 6^{th} graders that took the STAAR test in Texas was 387,665. Only 17% of these students ranked as Mastered. In other words, only 17 out of 100 6^{th} graders have mastered that grade’s content before moving onto the next grade. It’s clear that there is a disconnect for all concerned. It is important to note, that the STAAR is a well written math test that does truly test a student’s ability to apply math concepts.

We need to understand STAAR test grading to better interpret what “Mastered” means. We are all familiar with the old grading system like A, B, C, D and the dreaded F. However, the STAAR test has softened its vernacular to Mastered, Meets Grade Level, Approaching Grade Level, and Did Not Meet Grade Level. Ok let’s line that up to our, “Old school,” experience. It appears that Mastered is an A, Meets Grade level is a B, and Approaching would encompass both a C and D, with the F reserved for the Did Not Meet Grade Level.

However, it is a bit more nuanced than that. The scoring on the test is relative to the grade performance of the total population in that grade level. To be more precise, if your student achieves the STAAR test rank of Mastered, then your students score was better than 97% of the students in that grade for the entire state. If your student is in the STAAR test rank of Meets Grade Level, then their score was equal to or better than 63 percent of all students in Texas for that grade level. In other words, they scored better than 6 out of every 10 students. The STAAR rank of Approaching Grade Level means you did the same or better than 40% of the kids in the entire state in the same grade or better than 4 out of 10. Finally, Does Not Meet grade level means your student scored the same or better than 19% of the kids in the same grade level or approximately 2 out of 10 students in that grade. Here is an important take away - this ranking is based on the entire state of Texas sub-grouped by grade level. This does not mean, for example, if a 5^{th} grade student needed to master 20 topics in math to be on grade level, that they mastered all 20. This is not to say the results are meant to be misleading, however it needs to be placed in the context that all rankings are relative to performance across the group and relative to the performance of your students’ peers.

So why is there such consternation around this test? After working with hundreds of students that come to our centers for help, in addition to the countless hours studying each STAAR test question and mapping each math STAAR test question to our curriculum, we have come to some conclusions. There is a disconnect between how kids are taught math and how the STAAR tests math. To address the STAAR test conundrum, it requires an understanding of how learning math works.

To understand this, we must first understand how children need to learn math if they are to do well on the STAAR test. First, children develop their math skills through what I call the development of Conceptual Awareness. This is the how and why of math; while this can be vague it might be easier to explain what it is not. It is not the repeated application of steps. For example, the repeated application of steps allows a student to memorize the process for adding fractions but if you ask the same student to order a list of fractions from smallest to largest, they are lost.

Unfortunately, given how many subjects our teachers need to teach, the number of students, and frankly the number of students in each class that are multiple grades behind, it is next to impossible to teach the how and why of math in a classroom. In addition, it requires some special training and curriculum.

Once a student has achieved Conceptual Awareness, they then need to move into Conceptual Application. This is often difficult without Conceptual Awareness. Interestingly, the way you teach Conceptual Application is through the use of word problems; by the way if your student struggles with word problems they are likely missing Conceptual Awareness. Now if you look at the nature of the STAAR test math questions, they are ALL some form of Conceptual Application, with some computation mixed in. So, the fix to this requires taking two steps. First, using the right diagnostic tools you can identify the conceptual gaps a student has. Second, use the right curriculum and instruction to fill those conceptual gaps that focuses on the how and why. When this is applied consistently leading up to any STAAR test, they can improve their performance. This leads to stress reduction and each year ultimately gets easier.

At Mathnasium, we remove the stress by targeting your students’ conceptual gaps and simultaneously connecting those topics to develop that coveted Application of Math skills. It’s an investment that pays dividends every year after that.