Despite pleas by some officials from school districts affected by Hurricane Harvey, the state education commissioner told lawmakers Tuesday that it will be difficult to delay student testing or suspend testing requirements altogether this school year.
Commissioner Mike Morath told members of the House Public Education Committee that he doesn’t have the authority to permit students in Harvey-affected areas not to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. The test is tied to federal funding, which makes up about 10 percent of the state’s education budget.
Morath said delaying STAAR administration could also create further difficulties for school districts, including pushing the last day of school further into the summer and affecting summer school schedules.
Morath said that suspending the STAAR wouldn’t help students either.
“The purpose of these assessments is to determine grade level mastery in reading and math. The purpose of the test is to inform us to what students know. Not issuing a test … blinds you to that information,” Morath said, adding that he will make a final decision on potential testing changes in the next two weeks.
Harvey ripped through 60 counties along the Texas coast in late August, forcing 1.4 million students to miss at least some school. About 19,000 students are still living in damaged homes or in other temporary housing, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Agency officials have been scrambling to provide some relief to school districts, including creating a mental health task force to help traumatized teachers and students and providing waivers so that school districts won’t lose funding this school year because of drops in student enrollment after Harvey.
On Tuesday, some members of the committee, including Reps. Morgan Meyer and Linda Koop, both Dallas Republicans, said the state could do more to help school districts when it comes to testing and accountability.
“You had such a life-changing circumstance, I don’t know if these tests can really be that accurate for these displaced students,” Meyer said.
Several officials from school districts affected by Harvey, including those in the Aldine, Alief, Rockport and Beaumont, told lawmakers Tuesday that they’re OK with students being tested but don’t want the results to penalize students or school districts.
Fifth- and eighth-graders and high school students must pass the STAAR to advance to the next grade or graduate, although students who fail can appeal to committees of their teachers and parents to be allowed to move on.
“Kids are resilient. Are they resilient enough to overcome this? I don’t think so. Teachers in the classroom and principals leading those teachers … are struggling mightily,” said H.D. Chambers, superintendent of the Alief school district.
Critics have long considered STAAR too difficult for students, creating test anxiety, forcing teachers to focus on the test at the expense of subject matter and punishing students by holding them back a grade. Scores have also remained relatively stagnant over the years.
District officials also told lawmakers Tuesday they fear that low test scores as well as the increased number of students who are considered dropouts because they’ve been displaced by Harvey will hurt school districts’ ratings.
“We don’t mind taking the exams, but we don’t want to be … publicly humiliated over something we had no control over,” said Joseph Patek III, superintendent of the Aransas County school district.
Currently, the state gives school districts a label of “met requirement” or “did not meet requirement” based on a variety of performance measures.
Starting in 2018, the state will rate school districts with letters A through F, a system that critics say is vague and unfairly penalizes school districts with large numbers of low-income students.
If a school fails for five years in a row, the state could close it or replace the district’s school board with an outside board of managers. There are 23 schools in Harvey-affected counties that fall in this category.