Even as districts grapple with how to reopen campuses amid the coronavirus pandemic, Texas will require students to take its high-stakes, state-mandated standardized exams in the upcoming school year.


Texas will move forward with administering the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, in the 2020-21 school year. Commissioner Mike Morath told State Board of Education members Tuesday that the testing will include some changes, including an expanded testing window and an extended period for online testing.


The state also will adjust the way its accountability system works "given we lost last year’s data and it’s going to be harder to calculate growth," Morath said.


STAAR exams are given in grades three through eight, as well as in high school, and are used to measure how well students have mastered core subjects, including reading, writing and math.


The state’s accountability system, which doles out letter grades to districts and their campuses, relies heavily on STAAR student performance and how much improvement students make from the previous year.


"The fact that we don’t have that data coming out of this year means our first line of impact for how significant the decline was ... we just don’t have that information and can’t adjust our educational support to the kids we are supporting," Morath said in an update to the state education board.


He said educators, school boards and policy makers are blind to that information right now.


Other states are seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Education to waive similar exams, something advocacy group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment asked the Texas Education Agency to do last week.


With some exceptions, the state requires students in grades five and eight to pass the math and reading portions of the STAAR exams to advance to the next grade level. High school students must pass their End-of-Course STAAR exams to graduate.


"To judge a student in the middle of a pandemic just doesn't seem like the right thing to do," said Heather Sheffield, TAMSA president.


She said many students, particularly those from low-income households, lack access to resources, including an internet connection.


"We should really be focusing on students’ health and their well-being right now rather than an A-F grade," Sheffield said.


Earlier this month, Morath announced that students will be returning in person to schools this fall, but exactly what that will look like is unclear.


The agency was expected last week to release public health guidelines on how schools can reopen but withheld them. But draft guidelines unintentionally released against the backdrop of record-high coronavirus cases in Texas showed the agency imposing few obligations on districts. Educators expressed frustration that the draft guidelines lacked mandates on face masks and social distancing.


In mid-March, state officials announced the STAAR testing requirements would be waived for 2019-20. Critics said the state should waive them again in the coming school year, diverting funds that would be spent on standardized testing to instead provide more resources to districts and schools, which have lost millions amid the pandemic.


Tuesday’s announcement triggered additional calls for a timeout on STAAR testing.


Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said educators don’t even know for sure what form education is going take this fall, and standardized testing should be the last priority for the state.


"There are other, much more crucial priorities for the state, beginning with a plan for safe schools, a plan for returning students, teachers and employees safely to classrooms, but only after the pandemic has begun to subside, not while COVID cases are still increasing," Candelaria said. "Our schools can’t afford the loss of more tax dollars on testing, and our students and educators can’t afford the distraction as they continue to adjust to new methods of teaching and learning. Let’s close the learning gap, not enrich testing companies."


CORONAVIRUS IN TEXAS: What we know, latest updates


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