State concerned about giving STAAR reprieve to Harvey-affected schools

Despite pleas from some school districts affected by Hurricane Harvey, the state education commissioner told lawmakers on Tuesday that it will be difficult to delay student testing dates or suspend testing requirements altogether.

Commissioner Mike Morath told members of the House Public Education Committee that he doesn’t have the authority to suspend State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness requirements and if he does, the state could lose out on federal funding, which makes up about 10 percent of the state’s education budget. He said that delaying STAAR testing dates could also create further difficulties for school districts, including pushing the last day of school further into the summer and affecting summer school schedules.

READ: New survey shows widespread discontent with STAAR

Waiving testing requirements could also prevent students from getting the help they need, Morath said.

“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 is … the same as not going to the doctor and checking your … blood pressure. It doesn’t really affect your blood pressure. It doesn’t change your health trajectory but it does blind you to that information,” Morath said, adding that he will make a final decision on potential testing changes in the next two weeks.

According to a Texas Education Agency survey of more than half of the 300 school districts affected by Harvey, most of them want to delay testing requirements by a week or less. About 70 of them wanted a two week or longer delay in testing.

Some members of the committee including Reps. Morgan Meyer and Linda Koop, both Dallas Republicans, said they were concerned that the test scores wouldn’t be an accurate representation of students’ performance.

“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.

Homes of about 19,000 students in Texas were damaged by Harvey, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Some officials from school districts affected by Harvey, including Aldine and Alief, told lawmakers that they’re okay with students being tested but would not like the test scores to be used against students or school districts.

Currently, 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 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.

Since the STAAR was first administered in 2012, critics have long considered the test too difficult for students. Test scores have remained relatively stagnant year over year. Parents have complained that the test has caused anxiety, forced teachers to focus on the test at the expense of subject matter, and punished students by holding them back a grade.

Texas students did worse on STAAR this year on all subjects except for math.

Also creating heartburn is how the state will evaluate school districts affected by Harvey based on the test scores.

READ: Texas schools and districts get their letter grades from state

Currently, the state gives school districts a label of met requirement or did not meet requirement.

“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.

If a school does not meet requirement 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 school districts in Harvey-affected counties that fall in this category.

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