Pre-87th Legislative Session Round Table

State Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, speaks during a pre-87th legislative session forum hosted by White Oak and Union Grove ISDs, on Tuesday October 27, 2020, at Union Grove High School.

Republican state Rep. Jay Dean of Longview is among a bipartisan group of 68 House lawmakers asking the Texas Education Agency to cancel the STAAR exam or at minimum not use student scores to rate schools or districts this year.

A letter written by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, asks that the state apply for waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the standarized test, which is administered to students in third through 12th grade, the Texas Tribune reported.

Dean was joined in signing the letter by state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

Should the test still be administered during the coronavirus pandemic, it “should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

The letter is addressed to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, but it’s “just as much a letter to the governor,” Bernal told the Tribune, adding that Gov. Greg Abbott “very easily could call the play to change the landscape right now.”

“If we take our time talking to educators — not administrators — but educators, counselors, parents and students, of course, that the last thing they all need right now is the extra and added stress of STAAR,” Bernal said.

Dean said Wednesday that concerns voiced in October by Longview-area superintendents at a forum with Dean and other area lawmakers influenced his decision to sign the letter.

“I’m not saying that we don’t need accountability, but with the COVID, so many kids are out of school (and) there’s so much virtual versus in-person, it’s just a mess,” he said. “The only thing I agreed to was, look, we need to suspend this right now until we can get a better handle on where everything’s at. I am not saying that we do not need measures and accountability to determine where schools are with kids, but common sense tells me with everything they’re having to deal with that’s a difficult proposition.”

Dean said Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty is drafting another letter on the issue that “will clarify some things,” and he will support that letter.

“We have all, since my first session in 2017, we’ve all had issues with the STAAR test because there’s been lots of issues with it every year. What we need to do is evaluate and assess if that’s the right program to determine where each district is from an accountability standpoint,” he said. “I’m a big fan of, besides STAAR, there’s a bunch of other testing companies that get us to the same place as far as accountability. One of the things we’ve discussed ... is setting these specifications and allowing each school district to determine which one of the testing programs they want to use. Pre-COVID that’s been discussed for a number of years, and I think we need to continue to pursue that.”

Dean said he has heard from many superintendents about the issues schools are facing because of the pandemic.

“I think we need to take a pause and allow districts to deal with this and come back and determine what is the right program to be held accountable,” he said. “Right now 5% of all Texas students are unaccounted for — 5%. That is a huge number. So how do we do this testing when we have 5% of students unaccounted for?”

Talking to State Board of Education members Wednesday morning, Morath said much is still up in the air over how the STAAR will be administered and used to rate school districts.

But he seemed to reject the idea of canceling the exams altogether, saying they would be a useful way of determining how much learning students have lost during the pandemic.

“Absent the STAAR test, you’re not going to have a valid, reliable view of grade-level mastery of student skills,” he said. But he added that the question of how the state would use those results to rate schools and districts was “much more open.”

Bernal said the commissioner needs to clearly lay out what role STAAR testing will have this year if he intends to require it.

“I don’t know if there’s any comfort in a yet to be revealed approach to accountability right now, all the while teachers, counselors, students and parents are in the pressure cooker of trying to deal with STAAR,” Bernal said.

Last spring, Texas applied for and received a waiver from the federal government allowing it not to administer the STAAR. It is unclear whether President Joe Biden’s administration will offer similar waivers in 2021.

Texas has already committed to allowing elementary and middle school students who fail the exams this spring to move up to the next grade, with district permission. Usually, student scores on the test determine whether high school students can graduate, whether some elementary and middle school students can move on to the next grade, and whether schools can remain open.

— Staff writer Kristen Barton contributed to this report.