By Russell H. Withers, General Counsel & Senior Policy Analyst November. 24, 2020
The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) examinations provide an objective measure of how well our public schools are performing relative to each other and themselves over time. The exams are an important component of campus and district A-F accountability ratings, which provide parents with a simple shorthand for the performance of their kids’ schools. These accountability metrics are the only objective standards by which parents may assess school performance.
Nearly 60 members of the Texas House of Representatives recently signed a letter sent to Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath, requesting that TEA cancel the STAAR examinations for a second year in a row, or, at minimum, use student scores only “as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions under the A-F accountability system.” The list of signatories is bipartisan, though I could not disagree more strongly on the call to cancel state assessments. I am, however, somewhat receptive to the alternative they propose, which is to use the assessments solely to see where our kids stand academically.
As the letter correctly points out, “data from the STAAR exam may be a good indicator of where our students are currently.” Indeed, straight from TEA’s website, the state’s assessment program “is designed to measure the extent to which a student has learned and is able to apply the knowledge and skills at each tested grade or course” identified in the state’s curriculum.
Parents understand more than anyone how different the school year has been. Every single one of them experienced the remote learning approach at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Many parents have made the choice to continue virtual education through the 2020-2021 school year. Given how atypical public education has been since March, it is imperative that parents know how well the pandemic approach is or is not working. The COVID Slide, as the letter points out, “has resulted in students, across the state, being behind grade-level in nearly every subject.” But, contrary to the letter’s argument, that is not a reason to cancel assessments. That is about as strong an argument as anyone can make for proceeding with them so that we have an objective measure of just how bad that slide is.
Given that assessments were already cancelled for the 2019-2020 school year, cancelling them again would allow the public education system to move forward as though its performance does not matter, but parents and policymakers need to know how far off the mark the current approach has been so that problematic areas can be identified and improvements can be made. After all, the public school system is using and ad hoc form of virtual education, which they have opposed at every turn in legislative form over the years. Take SB 610, for example. This 2017 bill would have expanded the state’s virtual school network. The usual public education advocates all opposed it. Senator Larry Taylor filed a similar bill in 2019, which met similar opposition. If we had an objective measure of how the current approach is working, perhaps there could be a real conversation about building a set of virtual offerings that would make Texas better prepared in the future.
It is also worth pointing out that most of the loudest voices in favor of cancelling STAAR exams would like to see them abolished entirely anyway. I wrote about this back in April when last year’s STAAR exams were cancelled:
A constituency for eliminating STAAR and A-F accountability exists and will likely use this opportunity to push that agenda. For example, the Texas Association of School Administrators has already published its 2021 legislative priorities, which states open opposition to A-F ratings in their current form and opposition to accountability based on students’ test performance. That’s a position taken before cancellation for the year due to the pandemic.
More recent evidence for this disingenuous position can be found in a Texas Tribune article about the recent letter to TEA, which quotes the president of the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) calling for another STAAR cancellation because “[o]ur students, educators and their families can’t afford the distraction of STAAR as they struggle to stay safe and continue to adjust to new methods of teaching and learning.” Don’t buy it. TSTA openly states on their website that one of their “top education issues” is to “demand that the Legislature abolish or drastically cut back on the STAAR program.” The pandemic if but a helpful pretext in this ongoing mission.
If the state wants to decouple STAAR assessments from sanctions and accountability for the 2020-2021 school year only, as the legislators who signed the letter indicate would be an acceptable approach, that’s a defensible position. But to outright cancel them again would betray the parents who have trusted public educators with their children during these trying times. It would send a signal to them that performance and outcomes do not matter. It would be a mistake.