Fourth- and seventh-grade students in Royse City ISD may not have to take the standard writing portion of the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam this year, pending on the district’s application to join a pilot program designed to reevaluate current standardized testing policies.

During the monthly Royse City ISD school board meeting on Monday, Julia Robinson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told the board that the application to join the writing pilot is being processed. She said she fully expects the district to be accepted into the program.

Currently, students moving on to the fifth and eighth grade are required to take a four-hour writing test with a single prompt administered by the state. The current version of the exam also includes two multiple-choice sections to test revision and editing skills. Under the pilot program, the writing portion of the test would take the form of a portfolio, or a collection of works, in order to evaluate students.

“Sometimes if they get the prompt and they’re nervous, or they read it and can’t think about what quite to write, it makes it hard for young children to really show their skills in that kind of environment,” Robinson said.

Robinson said the pilot program, which would gather a total of four writing samples, would better assess the progress that students make throughout the academic year. The program would affect an estimated 925 students.

Before submitting the application, which was filed on Jan. 9, Robinson said that she and her staff spent time speaking to teachers around the district about the potential changes. She said most, if not all, of the responses were in favor of the pilot program.

The 84th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1164 in 2015, calling for a statewide pilot program to study best practices for a new writing assessment test for public school students.

Three districts served by Region 10 Educational Service Center; Athens ISD, Garland ISD and Sunnyvale ISD, were designated to test out the first year of the program. The center serves, among other counties, Rockwall County and Hunt County with school district needs.

According to a Texas Education Agency report published in September 2017, the total number of districts participating in the program will increase from seven to 12 districts. Agency sources told the Herald-Banner that they now expect at least 79 districts to try the program. 

The report also states that the second year of the pilot program will seek to provide more training for teachers who are using the new rubric.

During the 2016-17 school year, Royse City ISD had a higher passing rate on the writing section of the STAAR when compared to the state average of fourth and seventh grade students. Despite meeting the state’s standards, Robinson said she believes the district will benefit from adopting the new method of testing.

“We are really appreciative of this opportunity to join the pilot and really want to support what the Texas Education Agency is doing to assess kids in a more natural environment,” Robinson said.

Superintendent Kevin Worthy echoed many of the same sentiments that were shared by Robinson during her presentation, and said he fully supports the initiative.

“We’re eliminating anxiety for our students and also our teachers, which is very positive,” Worthy said. “Anytime the state gives us an opportunity to do something this innovative, we take them up on that.”

In other board actions, trustees also received a budget report for the upcoming school year from Robert Lake from accounting firm Rutherford, Taylor and Company.

“The district is in strong financial position, and we’ve got a great strategic plan going forward, so it was a good report overall,” said Byron Bryant, chief financial officer for Royse City ISD.

The board also approved the academic calendar for 2018-19, which, among other changes, would begin the spring semester later than the previous schedule.

“The new calendar gives kids and teachers the ability to recharge the week after New Year’s Day,” Worthy said. “This kind of gives the teachers time to get the holiday behind them, and to breath a little bit to start fresh for the new semester.”

In light of January being “School Board Appreciation Month,” trustees also received a personalized gift basket from schools around the district. Students and principals had a chance to share their appreciation of the board at the start of Monday night’s meeting.

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