Frank: We Don’t Teach to the Test, We Teach History Above It; Measure That

I teach International Baccalaureate History in Brownsville, Texas, a border-town and one of the most underserved and impoverished areas of the country. Yet every year my students surpass expectations on the state’s standardized US History assessment known as STAAR. That’s because I don’t “teach to the test”; I teach above it. 

In Texas, there is a broadening movement toward reforming assessments and accountability  in our public schools. The Texas Education Agency is adjusting how campus letter grades are calculated, a topic of much debate. As a Distinguished Master Teacher, I want to clear the air on what high-performing teachers are doing: we are teaching in a way that is robust, rigorous and relatable and the results speak for themselves. We need normalcy to continue our work.

Scott Frank

From my experience in thirteen years of education, there is one way to have students excel on the STAAR and that is to teach above it. My class has every possible barrier to success: poverty, students with special needs, emergent bilingual students, etc. Yet for the last ten years, each and every one of my students has passed the 11th Grade US History STAAR. If students from one of the most underserved areas of the US can do it, the rest of Texas can too!

My classroom is a place of discussion, debate and discipline – not a “drill and kill” session. A baseline of key facts is necessary, but not sufficient if history is to be taught with all the nuanced complexity needed for success. We critically assess what happened and look at it through multiple perspectives. Teachers like me are building citizens able to engage in dialogue with each other and empathize with other perspectives, not cancel each other out.  

For all the criticism, the STAAR does what an exam with so much at stake should do: establish a baseline of historical fact that students should be familiar with to be knowledgeable citizens. We need an assessment to measure what students learned in a year of history. The STAAR is not perfect, but it does the trick.  

There is a movement to measure other factors to arrive at a campus letter-grade if STAAR scores are not hitting the mark: ACT scores, CCMR, student growth, elimination of all non-Federal Mandated Exams, amount of electives and extracurricular activities, etc. But we actually need consistency right now in the wake of COVID. Teachers are leaving the profession at record numbers, and according to one survey, 77% percent of teachers have seriously considered leaving the classroom in the last two years. I am not ashamed to say I strongly thought about it because of the gaps (academic and mental health related) I have dealt with because of the pandemic. Further complicating our accountability system will only serve to hide, rather than close, those gaps. 

We need normalcy to close gaps. We do not need another curve ball. Teachers who made it through the pandemic should be applauded and supported. There were three years of disrupted learning.  We are working as hard and as fast as we can. If students are not meeting the baseline of the STAAR, that is a very real problem that must be faced by schools. We need a certain standard to be reached. The answer is not finger-pointing at a teacher, it is an emphasis on rigor and accountability and best-practices as quickly as we can muster.  

We need funding to support after-school and Saturday tutorials to frontload material prior to first instruction for our students most at-risk of falling behind. Most importantly, teachers need to be heard and supported. STAAR provides the data we need to improve outcomes for all our students, and that should be our true north star.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Scott Frank, an educator for the past 13 years. He has been at IDEA Frontier College Prep. for the past ten of those years. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Frank can be reached by email via:

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