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High-Stakes Testing in Texas High Schools: The Case for Individual Graduation Committees and Authentic Assessment
Catherine Hartman, Gregory Pulte, Kristina Gutierrez & Will Davies
Texas Center for Education Policy
The University of Texas at Austin
May 16, 2017
High attrition and low high school graduation rates in Texas are a large and growing concern across the state. Standardized tests, like the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), are a significant contribution to this problem. This brief explores why high-stakes, standardized tests fail students and why Texas policy makers and educators should turn to authentic assessments instead, including project- and portfolio-based assessments, which are designed to serve the learning characteristics and needs of all students, notably those from minority and low socioeconomic groups. Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs) represent an important opportunity for authentic assessment to occur within Texas high schools. IGCs provide a much-needed alternative for educators to graduate students who do not pass EOC, or STAAR, exams.
To make the case for Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs) and authentic assessment, this brief first elaborates on the context of the state’s testing system known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). Accordingly, we demonstrate how STAAR testing does not meet students’ needs. The following sections further elaborate the deleterious effects of STAAR testing on minority, low socioeconomic, and English language learner (ELL) populations. Among the factors highlighted are high school attrition rates, the language-dependent natures of the tests, and other biases that lead minority populations to underperform. Concerns grow out of a recent body of research on the prevalence of testing fatigue and anxiety, impacting students, parents, teachers, and legislators themselves. Most positively, we maintain, that the move to IGCs in Texas meets up conceptually with best practices in education related to authentic assessment.
High School Graduation and Attrition Rates in Texas. High, high school attrition rates are a pervasive issue in Texas. One out of every four students across the state fails to graduate, and 25 percent of students enrolled as high school freshmen in the 2012-2013 school year left school before graduating from a Texas public high school. Attrition rates run high, as 102,610 left Texas high schools between the 2012-2013 and 2015-2016 school years. Additionally, attrition rates for minority students are substantial. Compared to White students, Black and Hispanic students are more than twice as likely to leave a Texas school prior to graduation (Intercultural Development Research Association [IDRA], 2016). One of the factors that contributes to low completion rates and high levels of attrition is standardized testing, including the STAAR (see Valenzuela, 2004, who makes a cogent argument in the context of Texas’ earlier high-stakes, standardized test, the Texas Assessment for Knowledge and Skills [TAKS]; also see McNeil & Valenzuela, 2000).
Part of the problem demonstrated with standardized testing is that the test assumes a one-size-fits-all approach, relying on the assumption that all students come to school with the same abilities and opportunities to learn to perform equally well on the test. The reality is that teachers face a huge variation in student abilities, backgrounds, cultures, and characteristics across a single classroom (Moores, 2013). Test results, like those from the STAAR, are often invalid and unreliable and underestimate the academic attainment of the test taker, especially among disabled and English language learner students (ELLs) (Cook, Gerber, & Semmel, 1997; Moores, 2013; Wright, 2006).
Aside from linguistic bias against ELLs who are tasked to test in a language that they do not master, standardized testing is culturally biased because tests reflect the culture of those who designed the test, meaning whites from middle- to upper-socioeconomic statuses (Phillips, 2006). Hence, students who are affluent and members of the majority will more easily understand standardized tests and, as a result, achieve higher scores on them than students who are members of minority and low socioeconomic groups. These tests do not necessarily reflect students’ actual intellectual abilities (Phillips, 2006). Students’ language proficiency in the testing language, as mentioned, also plays a substantial role in student performance. Standardized tests are written in English, which results in non-English proficient students, who are otherwise capable, high-level students, underperforming on them due to their language-dependent nature (Phillips, 2006).
Testing Fatigue. Testing fatigue is another factor that needs to be considered in the discussion of why standardized tests are an unfit option for Texas students. A tremendous amount of testing fatigue exists for students subjected to Texas’ system of assessment and accountability. Fatigue, stress, and aversion to tests that students experience is damaging to the quality of student education (Segool, Carlson, Goforth, Von Der Embse, & Barterian, 2013). Standardized testing provokes fear and frustration among students (Segool, Carlson, Goforth, Von Der Embse, & Barterian, 2013).
Research suggests that high-stakes standardized tests, such as those required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), significantly impact student anxiety levels (Segool et al., 2013). Studies also indicate that students who suffer testing anxiety perform poorly on standardized tests (Segool et al., 2013). Additionally, teachers report that students experience significantly more test anxiety when taking an NCLB assessment than on a teacher designed classroom assessment (Segool et al., 2013). Reflective of this testing anxiety are the reports of students crying or vomiting when taking these tests (Chasmar, 2013). Loss of sleep and illnesses are common during testing season, as well as academic disengagement (Croft, Roberts, & Stenhouse, 2016).
Texas parents also experience testing fatigue. According to FairTest, a national center that promotes fairness and validity in testing, hundreds of thousands of parents nationally are opting their children out of standardized testing (FairTest, 2017). In Texas, the number of subscribers to the Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests is well beyond 37 thousand people, indicating that a large proportion of Texans are tired of standardized tests like STAAR. In addition to opting out, parents have successfully banded together against state standardized testing. Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA) successfully lobbied to eliminate the inclusion of End-of-Course (EOC) exam scores in final course grades of graduating students (TAMSA, 2014). Additionally, TAMSA fought for the considerable reduction of standardized testing from 15 EOC exams to five (TAMSA, 2014).
The stakes attached to testing narrows the curriculum to subjects only tested on the standardized test. Teacher skill sets are constrained by the testing structure that limits them to only consider students’ content and skills development, thusly ignoring the needs of the whole child and stunting child development (Barrier-Ferreira, 2008). Research indicates that teachers find that mandated standardized testing contradicts many sound and holistic educational practices that promote growth beyond rote memorization (Abrams, Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003).
Standardized testing is particularly burdensome in bilingual classrooms during test time, during which teachers face pressures to only teach tested subjects (Palmer & Virginia, 2011). Teachers are placed at a disadvantage when standardized testing does not allow for the knowledge and experiences that students bring to the classroom (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2000), nor does it reflect the social, economic, and emotional challenges that inhibit student test performance (Phillips, 2006). Additionally, standardized testing damages teacher morale through excessive test preparation that limits the range of student educational experience (McNeil, 2000; McNeil & Valenzuela, 2000) and minimizes the skill set of teachers (Abrams, Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003). It becomes difficult to imagine that teachers perform optimally when faced with increased stress and threats to their livelihood and careers based upon how students perform. The stress associated with test preparation and performance inhibits teacher productivity (Phillips, 2006). The difficulties inherent in producing high student test scores on state mandated tests contribute to teacher dissatisfaction that negatively impacts morale (Moore, 2012). Testing fatigue becomes intense for teachers to the degree that it drives experienced educators out of the profession (Thibodeaux, Labat, Lee, & Labat, 2015).
Texas Legislators Recognize Standardized Testing Fatigue. Several Texas legislators recognize the deep structural flaws in the accountability system and that Texans are burned out by standardized testing. These legislators have sought in recent years to recommend assessment alternatives to high-stakes testing. After considerable lobbying from Texas parents and TAMSA, former House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock introduced legislation that reduced the number of EOC exams from 15 to 5. Additionally, Senator Kel Seliger chaired a committee that in 2016 released a report suggesting alternatives to high-stakes, standardized testing (Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, 2016).
Additionally, the A-F grading system, which was passed in the 84th Texas Legislative session, has already been denounced by legislators in the 85th legislative session. House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty introduced House Bill 22, a bill that overhauls how the state assigns letter grades to public schools in Texas by placing less emphasis on assessment tests (Alfaro, 2017). Outrage over the A-F grading spurred House Representative to file a bill that would repeal A-F grading entirely (Ayala & Hacker, 2017).
Long a subject that legislators were unwilling to negotiate vis-à-vis other demands for funding, the costs of standardized testing is now coming into question. In March 2017, House Bill 1336 was heard. This bill would assess the costs of standardized testing to the state of Texas but also to the school districts and teachers charged with implementing the test. The efforts of parents and legislators reflect testing fatigue. Standardized testing is structured in a way that fails to provide a system that is equitable for students. It is also not embraced by many, if not most, parents, teachers, or legislators.
Why We Need Authentic Assessment. American classrooms are becoming more diverse. Unless teachers account for students’ culture, learning styles, background, and experiences within their classrooms, the “achievement gap” will never be closed (DeCastro-Ambrosetti & Cho, 2005). High-stakes testing has been proven ineffective, particularly within minority populations. In short, culturally relevant, authentic assessments are an effective alternative to high-stakes, standardized testing (Gipps, 1999; Heritage, 2010).
NCLB has seen a rise in the political interest within communities to ensure that schools meet the need of minority populations, primarily students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools (Durden, 2008). Latina/o students in low-income schools are often faced with inequitable resources, which, affect their test scores (Rodriguez & Arellano, 2016). Educational systems often give the illusion of equality in terms of access to resources and student performance, but upon closer examination, minority students often receive a second-class education compared to non-minority students; inequalities within the system leave minority students destined for educational failure (Durden, 2008).
Education must shift away from rote learning models and high-stakes, standardized testing and evolve toward a model that allows for development of students’ creativity and problem-solving skills (Litchfiled & Dempsey, 2015). Extensive research has shown that culturally relevant teaching (CRT) has positive effects on minority student populations. If done effectively, CRT can provide students with opportunities for developing critical competence. CRT also nurtures students’ sociopolitical and critical consciousness (May, 2010). Schools must move towards CRT to reach equity in teaching all students.
Additionally, authentic assessments have been proven to be effective measures to use in order to meet the needs of all learners and to incorporate elements of CRT. Standardized tests only demonstrate students’ abilities to recognize and recall information; authentic assessments, like portfolios and project-based learning assignments, require students to be effective performers with acquired knowledge (DeCastro-Ambrosetti & Cho, 2005). These assessments provide students the opportunity to engage with applicable real-world activities in which they apply skills that they have previously learned in order to demonstrate their learning. Teachers may use rubrics, which are shared with the students, as a way to assess students’ learning; rubrics also provide clear goals and objectives, ensuring that students have a clear vision of teachers' expectations while ensuring a high level of rigor. Additionally, alternative assessments provide teachers with options to engage in differentiated learning based on students’ preferences and learning styles, therefore meeting the unique needs of all students (DeCastro-Ambrosetti & Cho, 2005).
The Need for IGCs. As previously discussed, portfolio and project-based, student assessments provide a desirable and more effective alternative to standardized testing. One way that authentic assessment can be introduced into Texas high schools is through Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs). IGCs serve as a way to increase high school completion rates by providing students with an alternate way to complete high school course requirements and graduate. The concept of IGCs is not a revolutionary idea. For more than 100 years Texas has graduated high school students based on student performance, and students have been certified as ready to graduate by local public school teachers, principals, and school districts without testing. As previously discussed, standardized testing can be unreliable and a poor way of measuring what learning takes place in the classroom (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2000; Ravitch, 2013; Valenzuela, 2004)It is time for Texas to move away from a one-size-fits-all testing program to an accountability system that truly measures student growth and teacher productivity: authentic assessment. Accountability systems should be locally designed, culturally relevant, and authentically reflect student experiences. IGCs are a positive step in this direction and can increase graduation rates while keeping young Texans from falling through the cracks within the educational system.
Texas high school students enrolled in grades 11 or 12 who have taken and failed an EOC exam for no more than two courses can be candidates for IGCs. State-required EOCs can serve as a major barrier for students attempting to complete high school. Data from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) reveal that during the 2014-2015 school year, most students who completed IGCs failed the English II and U.S. History EOCs, which are not required by the federal government. Students who failed these exams comprise 83 percent of the IGC graduate population. Nearly 6,000 IGC graduates failed at least one EOC during the 2014-2015 school year. Of those students, 63 percent of IGC graduates failed only one exam; thirty-four percent of IGC graduates failed two EOCs, and nearly 3 percent failed three or more EOCs. Of those students that failed one EOC, most failed either the English II or U.S. History EOC: nearly 39 percent failed English II only, and nearly 14 percent failed U.S. History only. Of IGC graduates that failed two EOCs, nearly 7 percent failed both English II and U.S. History (TEA, 2015-a).
At just 2 percent during the 2014-2015 academic year, IGC graduates comprised a small percentage of the entire population of Texas high school graduates. IGCs were therefore created for 12,077 students in Texas. From that group, approximately 6,279 students (52 percent) were recommended by their committees for graduation (IDRA, 2016; see Appendix A). Comparing school districts across the state, the percentage of IGC graduates for the 2014-2015 school year ranged from 0.6 percent to 4.3 percent (TEA, 2015-a). Minority students, including Black and Latino students, and economically disadvantaged students benefit greatly from IGCs.
Black students comprised 18 percent of IGC graduates during the 2014-2015 school year with a total of 1,121 IGC graduates out of 39,690 total Black graduates. The overall Texas high school graduation rate for Black students is 13 percent. For Latino students, Latinos made-up 68 percent of IGC graduates in contrast to their 48 percent total of all high school graduates in Texas that year. Seventy-four percent of IGC graduates were identified as economically disadvantaged while comprising only 47 percent of the total number of high school graduates in Texas (TEA, 2015-a).
IGCs allow flexibility for certain populations of students, like English Language Learners (ELLs). ELLs who fail the English I EOC are permitted to pursue an IGC as an alternative plan to graduation, so long as the student takes all other required EOCs but fails one additional test. ELLs are also permitted to pursue IGCs if they pass the English I EOC but fail two other EOCs (TEA, 2015-b).
IGCs are comprised of a variety of individuals who assess students’ performance. These committees are comprised of a student’s principal or their designee; the teacher who taught the course in which the student failed the EOC; the department chair or lead teacher supervising the course; and the student’s parent, guardian, or advocate if the student is under 18 years of age (students aged 18 years or older can represent themselves) (TEA, 2015-b). Members of a student’s IGC determine whether a student has demonstrated proficiency in course content on the basis of alternative measures. IGCs therefore grant autonomy to professional educators in decision making with respect to student learning. Most importantly, IGCs are a form of authentic assessment: Requirements for IGCs could include a project related to course content or a portfolio of work samples related to the course subject matter (TEA, 2015-b). Other factors include the following: the student’s grade; the student’s EOC scores: the amount of remediation courses the student has completed; the student’s completion of dual enrollment, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses; the student’s college-level, examination program score; the student’s SAT or ACT score; and other factors related to the student’s preparedness for postsecondary education (TEA, 2015-b).
If we trust our educators with our children, we must similarly trust educators to assess our students on the basis of well-known, and subscribed to, best practices like authentic assessment. IGCs provide the policy space for educators to measure student growth holistically. Moreover, they represent an opportunity for change within the context of an arguably poor assessment and accountability system in Texas about which even legislators have grown weary. These committees afford marginalized students chances to complete school in an alternate format that offers a more authentic and reliable alternative to standardized, high-stakes testing. Without IGCs, Texas will unnecessarily fail large numbers of minority students, including Blacks, Latina/os, and ELLs, as these students will be forced to adapt to the harmful confines of high-stakes testing, a system that fails to prioritize their needs, characteristics, and potentialities.
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