Standardized testing has been an issue of contention for years in the US, the STAAR testing system in Texas notwithstanding. There has been an outcry from many parents and educators who believe that the state places too much emphasis on standardized test scores when it comes to assessing schools, teachers, and students. The claims they make include that too much time is spent by students and educators on state testing itself, rather than the test concepts and objectives themselves—a major cost to true education. Further, opponents of the STAAR test say the stakes for the tests are too high. Many want the Texas Legislature to roll back specific key components of the test—even the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) has asked its member districts to sign a resolution to this end. And this year that has been majorly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a brighter light on the fight.

Despite the increase in COVID-19 cases across the state, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) decided in November to continue with STAAR testing. The testing calendar was expanded from one to five weeks, to allow for longer test administration windows; and the test was proctored on school campuses across the state and at locations designated as secure alternative testing sites.

School districts were required to establish logistics and protocols for any remote learning students that headed back to school specifically to take the STAAR test. But many families chose to keep their students at home, even after schools put the COVID-19 safety procedures in place on top of current health protocols of having students six feet apart when possible, having students wash and or sanitize their hands, and requiring students to wear masks for the duration of their time on campus. Those families noted that the state had already waived all STAAR testing on March 18, 2020, when pandemic restrictions and lockdowns arose, and that the STAAR testing graduation requirements for the Class of 2020 were entirely waived for many high school seniors so that poor test performance due to pandemic impacts would not keep them from graduating. Families who did not send their students back to campus point out that while positive steps have been made in the fight against COVID-19, Texans are by no means out of the woods; and present circumstances are on par (at best) and more alarming (at worst) than when the March tests were canceled. They aren’t willing to risk the health and welfare of their children just so they can participate in standardized testing.

The TEA did make some changes to their overarching guidelines for STAAR testing. TEA officials noted that the state requires by law all eligible students to be assessed via these (and other) standardized tests and that Texas schools have a responsibility to make the test accessible to all eligible students. However, they also said that students participating in remote learning at home wouldn’t be able to take STAAR remotely, but that the state wouldn’t force students to show up in person to their campuses for testing.

Proponents of STAAR testing say that the data it will provide will be useful for measuring the level of academic proficiency of students regardless of the current pandemic. They back the TEA which holds that the testing data is necessary to show how the pandemic has impacted student learning thus far. Mike Morath, the Texas Commissioner of Education since 2016, weighed in on the STAAR testing and the data gathered from it. In his statement, he noted that the pandemic “has disrupted school operations in fundamental ways that have often been outside the control of our school leaders, making it far more difficult to use these ratings as a tool to support student academic growth.” Opponents do not disagree. However, they are less concerned with testing and more concerned with the fact that students in 2021 are going to be different not only academically, but also socially and emotionally; and they worry that pushing the STAAR test and other standardized tests will take away from the safe, comfortable, stress-free learning environments they want classrooms to be, for students who need them now more than ever.

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Written by Erika Mehlhaff