Many Texas students can skip STAAR tests this year

AUSTIN, Texas — Parents of Texas elementary and middle schoolers in virtual learning who don’t want their children sitting for in-person standardized tests this school year have a simple option: They can keep their kids home with no ill effect.

But for some high schoolers, whose test results still determine whether they graduate, there may be no way to get around showing up for testing sessions in person.

State education officials confirmed recently that all public school students will be required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR exams, in person at a monitored test site. But millions of Texas students have been learning from home during the pandemic, and school districts have few tools in hand to force those worried about risking their health to show up for the tests.

In an interview with the Texas Tribune about a month ago, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said it’s logistically impossible to allow children to take the exams remotely, but parents of remoter learners who don’t believe in-person testing is safe can keep their children home. “It’s not opting out of the STAAR test. It’s opting for remote education,” Morath said.

Federal and state law mandate that students in grades three through 12 take the STAAR exams, and in some cases how they do determines if they graduate or move up to the next grade. Texas has said fifth and eighth grade students who don’t pass required STAAR exams this year may move up to the next grades. But high school students must pass five subject-specific courses by the time they graduate, a requirement that will not be waived this year.

State education leaders and school superintendents anticipate that more students than in past years will opt out of taking the tests this spring, unwilling to show up in person. That will be easier for students in lower grades than those in high school, who will be giving up an opportunity to take a required test.

Morath stressed that the exams are important to judge how the pandemic impacted students’ education and help remediate shortfalls once things are back to normal.

Public opinion among educators and parents is largely against him. The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers criticized Morath for moving forward with the test during the pandemic. “Our message to all parents is that they should be in control of this decision and not under any intimidation from their school district for not sending their child to take the STAAR test,” Zeph Capo, the union’s president, said in a recent statement.

Many superintendents and teachers wanted the state to cancel the tests altogether, and a group of lawmakers in February had asked Gov. Greg Abbott to create a formal process to help parents opt out. “Requiring that all students be in person for the administration of exams creates an untenable environment that puts students and school personnel at immense risk of transmission,” state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, wrote in the letter signed by more than 60 other lawmakers. “Since it is evident that the [Texas Education Agency] has no plans to seek the federal waivers necessary to cancel the 2020-2021 administration of the STAAR … at a minimum it should allow students and their families the opportunity to opt out of the exam.”

In past years, a small number of Texas parents have kept their children from taking the STAAR each year, not wanting to subject them to the stress or because they opposed on moral grounds. State law makes opting out challenging, but parents could keep their children home from school on test and make-up days. This year, opting out takes much less effort for children already learning from home, and more parents appear to be considering joining the movement, bolstered by widespread opposition to the exams being administered in person during a pandemic.

Experts say school districts in areas with low levels of transmission that take reasonable precautions should be able to educate students safely. But community spread still exists in some regions of the state.

In normal years, the state uses the test scores to rate schools and districts on a scale from A through F. This year, as the pandemic has severely impacted the quality of education many students are receiving, Texas said it would not rate schools and districts. Unlike states like New York and Michigan, Texas will also not seek a federal waiver to cancel the tests.

Bernal has also filed a bill that would allow all high school seniors through 2022-23 to graduate, if a committee of their teachers agrees, without considering standardized test scores. That and a state-sanctioned opt-out process would help protect low-income students of color, who are more likely to be learning from home, he said.

“This is about STAAR testing and forcing students to come in for STAAR testing. At that point, I think we just point to health and safety and say that has to be the absolute priority,” he said.

Recent state guidance gives school districts additional flexibility on testing conditions so they can safely administer the STAAR, including more testing days and waivers to require students not scheduled to take the STAAR to temporarily learn remotely.

Some school administrators agree with Morath that testing is worth the trouble.

“The message really is, ‘For us to provide the best education for your child, we need to know exactly where your child is,’” said Jerry Moore, chief academic officer at Fort Worth ISD. “Our job is to make sure that regardless of what’s happened during this pandemic that we get your child ready for what’s coming next, to be successful in this next grade, course or school year.”

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