Written By: The Editorial Board at The Houston Chronicle

When kids finally do return to classes this coming school year, they will need to catch up on academic progress stalled by COVID-19 disruptions. They will need a learning environment that puts their emotional and physical well-being first. They will need teachers who can adjust curriculum to best serve students beset by upheaval and trauma.

What they do not need is STAAR testing.

High-stakes, state-mandated standardized exams should be the last thing on the minds of students and teachers who are already filled with worry and uncertainty about the year ahead. Under normal circumstances, the tests can provoke anxiety and stress so severe that some students become physically ill.

We are certainly not living in normal circumstances — something state education officials must take into account.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath told the State Board of Education on June 30 that the test is needed to measure gaps in learning caused when schools had to switch abruptly to online-only instruction in the spring.

“School boards are blind to that information, policymakers around the state are blind to that information,” he said during the virtual meeting. “Educators, unless they have some other robust assessment … can’t adjust our educational support of kids accordingly.”

We certainly agree that educators need a way to assess student performance and pinpoint deficiencies caused by stop-and-start learning. But a standardized test that could have a major impact on a school’s funding and accountability ratings is not the way to do that. Administering the tests — including the practice and prep — would consume time, energy and money that would be better spent helping students, teachers and families adjust to the demands of an anything-but-normal school year.

Such tests have also long been criticized as invalid indicators of student progress and ineffective in closing the so-called educational achievement gap, better dubbed “the opportunity gap.” Tests can be culturally biased against students of color and favor students whose families can afford tutoring and expensive test prep.

Now consider the great unknowns about the 2020-21 school year. Many districts are still formulating reopening plans. Students will be scrambling to catch up from last year and adjusting once again to remote learning. Teachers will be tasked with both online and in-person instruction. Everyone will be worrying about how to stay safe.

Yes, as Morath argues, we need measures of student progress. But only if they’re in the realm of accuracy. A STAAR test taken during pandemic distress would not accurately measure learning. It would only add to stress and trauma. That’s not even addressing the logistics of whether the test could be securely administered.

It doesn’t make sense to me right now that the state of Texas would increase stress on kids and families at a time when there are an unprecedented stresses on kids and families,” state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, who is among a number of Texas lawmakers from both parties urging Gov. Greg Abbott to waive this year’s STAAR, told the editorial board. “What we need to do is do everything we can to help teachers and districts facilitate engagement of students in this novel world in which they have to learn.

In announcing that STAAR testing would take place in the new academic year, Morath said the state accountability rating system, which uses test scores to grade schools from A-F, would be adjusted.

It needs more than adjusting. If the state insists on going ahead with STAAR, it should only be used as a benchmark for student learning, not as the deciding factor in school accountability.

Even better, Abbott could do what he did last spring: suspend STAAR testing and ask the U.S. Department of Education to waive federal testing requirements.

“We are thankful for Gov. Abbott’s willingness to waive the STAAR testing requirement,” TEA said then, “as it allows schools the maximum flexibility to remain focused on public health while also investing in the capacity to support student learning remotely.”

That was the right call then, when the pandemic was raging, and it is the right call now, when the pandemic rages still.

This story was originally published by The Houston Chronicle.

ABOUT Texas School Alliance

The Texas School Alliance (TSA) is a school district member organization that comprises 40 of some of the largest school districts in Texas and educates 50% of the state’s total pupil enrollment.

The TSA covers the breadth of Texas’ geographic expanse, with members from the Rio Grande Valley to the Texas Panhandle, from near the eastern border to far west Texas. The membership includes urban, mid-urban, and city- town districts and includes school districts that are both property wealthy and property-poor.

Texas School Alliance leaders have served on numerous statewide select committees, appointed boards and commissions over the past twenty-seven years. The TSA has been a valued partner to senators and House members throughout the legislative process. When appropriate, the Alliance invites speakers either from the Texas Education Agency or from the legislature to attend meetings and share information with member districts.