Students and teachers could get a study break if Texas lawmakers have their way. In a letter Wednesday, 68 state legislators asked the Texas Education Agency to cancel standardized testing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The bipartisan effort encourages TEA education commissioner Mike Morath to ditch the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test for the 2020-2021 school year. This comes as Dallas ISD students grapple with widespread learning loss.
In the letter, San Antonio state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat, asked the TEA to seek the federal waivers necessary to make canceling the STAAR test possible.
“At most, STAAR should only be used as a diagnostic tool, as opposed to determine sanctions under the A-F accountability system,” Bernal said in a tweet.
Other signatories included Democratic North Texas state Reps. Carl Sherman, Rafael Anchía and Chris Turner, as well as Republicans Lynn Stucky and Matt Krause.
In a tweet Wednesday, Anchía said it’s time to “prioritize the health and safety of our students and teachers.”
Sherman, who represents southern Dallas County, agrees.
“If we continue to do it the way we’ve always done it, then it’s not going to be helpful nor productive for the administration or the teachers,” Sherman told the Observer. “We’re already challenged with trying to provide quality education with the lack of having as much in-person teaching, and I think we’ve got to … factor in some curve to this.”
Dallas Republican Morgan Meyer was not a signatory to Bernal’s letter, but he’s previously advocated for canceling STAAR. In a separate message sent to Morath in July, Meyer urged him to pause standardized testing so educators could better focus on the “health, safety, wellness and learning” of students.
Should she be elected, Dallas hair salon owner and Texas Senate hopeful Shelley Luther would also push to get rid of STAAR testing, she told the Observer in September. Luther faces fellow Republican state Rep. Drew Springer in a Dec. 19 runoff election for the Senate District 30 seat.
In Wednesday’s letter, Bernal said the ongoing pandemic has resulted in an academic deficit among Texas children. Dubbed the “COVID Slide” by the TEA, it’s caused students to lag behind grade-level in most subjects.
Rather than worrying about the STAAR test, Bernal wrote that Texas school districts should focus on delivering high-quality education while protecting the safety of students and educators. The exam could still be used to gauge kids’ learning instead of sanctioning low-performing districts and campuses.
STAAR results inform the accountability ratings assigned to Texas school districts and campuses. Dallas ISD received a B — 86 out of 100 points — for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the state government website Texas School Report Cards.
Rena Honea, president of Dallas' Alliance/AFT union, said teachers would be “extremely grateful” to have STAAR not count this year. They wouldn’t have to worry about test scores harming their personal evaluations or lowering their campus’ rating.
Should these waivers be granted, Honea said educators could instead focus on instructing the students in more helpful ways. It’s also imperative that state funding not be tied to in-person instruction, she said.
“While online instruction is not ideal, it is by far the safest and most effective at this time,” Honea said.
As of Thursday evening, the DISD coronavirus dashboard counted 1,161 cumulative COVID-19 cases.
District spokeswoman Robyn Harris said she’s unsure whether Dallas ISD has requested a waiver for STAAR. Regardless, administrators will continue to prepare for the test as if it’s happening — especially considering the district’s struggles with learning loss.
Conducting STAAR would further highlight Dallas’ digital divide, Sherman said. Students living without broadband connectivity often have parents who work one or more essential jobs, meaning they might not get as much learning help at home.
“We’re only exacerbating the issue between the haves and the have-nots if we don’t make this change, so that was important to me,” Sherman said.