How HISD's Calendar Fails Students That Fail STAAR

A whole week of vacation for Thanksgiving!

That’s the big news for Houston ISD students and teachers if the trustees approve the recommended school calendar at this week’s school board meeting.

Administration surveyed tens of thousands of teachers, students and parents to get their input on whether to have a longer or shorter Thanksgiving break and subsequently whether or not to end the year a day later. Those surveyed overwhelmingly chose taking the whole week off at Thanksgiving.

What’s troubling, though, is that the new calendar does nothing to fix a major conflict between HISD’s calendar and the state’s schedule for reporting STAAR scores—a major issue given the district’s unique use of STAAR scores as a promotion standard for all its students in grades 3 through 8.

Originally created last year when the state pushed back STAAR testing to allow for more instruction time, the conflict arose when Houston ISD did nothing in response—leaving the last day of classes, teacher contracts and the beginning of summer school relatively unchanged.

Spring 2016 email from HISD principal to elementary school parents.

That lack of change led to a number of bad outcomes for parents, teachers and students last year like…

  • Parents asked to attend grade placement meetings about their children before STAAR scores were received.
  • Parents asked to consent to grade placement decisions and student instruction plans via email or phone without being able to meet with teachers and discuss student grades and other factors in promotion decisions.
  • Teachers asked to return to campus without pay for grade placement meetings after their last contract date.
  • And students required to begin summer school and only allowed to stop attending after STAAR scores were received showing they passed. 

The problem impacts two distinct groups of students. 

The first group is 5th & 8th grade students, who are required by the state to pass STAAR for automatic promotion and who have three opportunities to take STAAR—two of which happen during the regular school year.

The second group is 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th grade students, who don’t have to pass the STAAR for state requirements, but in fact, are required to pass STAAR on only a single try based on our local district policy passed by HISD trustees (EIE Local).

If students do not pass required STAAR administrations, the state is very specific about what the school is required to do next. These specific steps are in place for the protection of students and are the entire reason the state gives these tests: to guarantee each student gets individualized intervention to mitigate his or her lack of progress and to make sure that the district is providing him or her with a path to academic success.

It is this process after failing STAAR which is critical for the tens of thousands of HISD students that don’t pass it each year. And it is in this process where Houston ISD’s calendar falls short.

If you’re a 5th or 8th grade student who fails reading or math STAAR during the first two attempts, state law requires the school to call a Grade Placement Committee (GPC).

The GPC, which is comprised of the principal, the student’s teacher(s) in the related subject(s), and parent(s), meets to decide whether the student is truly not making academic progress and if not what instruction will best help the student make up that gap. Typically, the student is placed in summer school and takes the third administration, but there is an array of options available afforded to parents, including an option have their child skip the third STAAR administration. 

Schools are REQUIRED BY LAW to hold these GPCs after results are reported back from the state.

HISD’s problem? 

This year, STAAR results are due back from the state on May 30th—four days AFTER school is scheduled to end May 25th and three days AFTER contracts end for teachers on May 26th. 

Another date—not on the calendar approved by trustees—is the beginning of summer school. This year, summer school starts on June 1—just two days after STAAR results are returned.

That gives schools TWO DAYS to hold these meetings before summer school starts. Anyone who has worked in schools knows how busy the end of the school year is, and it is incredibly unfair to students to have this process rushed or skipped and incredibly unprofessional to ask school personnel to handle this important work after their contract year is over. 

Additionally, TEA’s manual related to these processes states, “The proposed date, time, and location of the GPC meeting should be included in the notification to parents. There should be an opportunity for the parent/guardian to participate in determining a convenient time for this meeting.” Parents are supposed to have a say in when these important meetings are held. 

So what was the result when this happened last year? 

Principals were told to hold GPCs before STAAR results were received, thereby saving the hassle of having to call teachers back to campus. Ponder that for a moment. These are families and children who are scared to death they won’t pass on to the next grade and school, and administration told campuses to hold a rushed meeting anyway and give them hypotheticals without having the data to inform individualized instruction. 

Holding these meetings without STAAR scores and in some cases using district snapshot data as a substitute was not only insulting to parents, it was illegal.

Not affording parents a meeting with teachers and a review of the student’s full academic record for the year was not only insulting to parents, it was illegal.

Communicating to parents and students that summer school was required prior to getting STAAR results or prior to having a GPC was not only insulting to parents, it was illegal.

This problem isn’t happening because there is no answer. It is happening because the calendar does not allow the appropriate time to carry out these important protections for students and empowerment of parents in their students education—processes that are required by state law.

What about that second group of students? 

3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th graders are in an even worse position. After having only a single chance to pass STAAR during the school year, these students’ results aren’t due to come back from the state until June 14—two weeks after summer school starts.

Why does the state return results for these grades back so late?

Because NO OTHER DISTRICT IN THE STATE uses STAAR scores as a promotion standard beyond the state required 5th and 8th grades.

Last year, trustees solved this problem by suspending the promotion standards for this optional set of grades, because they knew the scores would come back too late (see K-1 on page 158 of the December 10, 2015 board meeting). That problem hasn’t gone away this year, yet HISD administration shows no sign of recommending a similar change. 

What’s the solution?

The board should take a number of proactive steps to protect students, parents and teachers:

  1. Table approving any school calendars until administration has solved these conflicts to the satisfaction of the board.
  2. Follow last year’s precedent and suspend the use of STAAR scores as a promotion standard for non state-required grades: 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th.
  3. Bring the summer school schedule into the same official calendaring process as the regular school year so that conflicts like this have greater transparency and receive the same public input.
  4. Guarantee that all teachers necessary to a student’s grade placement and accelerated instruction planning are available and compensated for participating in GPC meetings.

If student success and school accountability are important to this board, then students, teachers and parents need to know that trustees are putting the policies and tools in place not to just give assessments but to also appropriately respond to their results.