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Foul Ups Prompt State to Scrap School Test Scores

Fifth and eighth graders who failed STAAR exams won’t be held back a grade or required to retest later this month, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Fifth and eighth graders who failed STAAR exams this year won’t be held back a grade or be required to retest later this month, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced late Friday, citing “ongoing reporting issues” with the state’s new testing vendor.

“I apologize for the continuing problems our students and staff are being forced to deal with because of ongoing reporting issues with our testing vendor,” Morath said in a statement. “Kids in the classroom should never suffer from mistakes made by adults. We intend to hold the vendor, Educational Testing Service, accountable.”

This past school year was the first that the New Jersey-based company known as ETS developed and administered the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness exams, which 5th and 8th graders and high schoolers are supposed to pass before they can move on to the next grade or graduate. State law allows Morath to waive the requirement whenever necessary, the Texas Education Agency noted in a news release.

School districts have reported dozens of logistical and technical issues during the various spring administrations of the state-required exams.

Problems first surfaced in March, when school districts reported problems with online tests that caused students to lose answers. The computer glitch impacted more than 14,000 exams. Several other issues have surfaced since, including — most recently — claims from a high-performing West Austin school district that ETS had lost all exams taken by 3rd through 8th graders that it shipped to the company.

ETS denied it had lost the tests. A spokesman did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment late Friday.

The issues, which are not entirely unprecedented, have fueled an existing backlash against the state's testing and accountability system, the stakes of which many parents and educators believe are too high. 

Morath's announcement marks a departure in opinion for the state education chief, who previously said there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant scrapping all statewide exams for the purposes of holding students accountable. Friday’s announcement did not address whether exam scores, including those of 5th and 8th graders, would be used to rate schools under the state’s accountability system. 

But Morath did make it clear that districts still may hold 5th and 8th graders back — or make them go to summer school — if they deem it appropriate.

"Even though state requirements have been waived, districts are still encouraged to use local discretion to determine on an individual basis whether accelerated instruction should be offered to support students," the news release said. 

The problems also have affected high school STAAR tests, but state law doesn't allow the education commissioner to waive graduation requirements. 

The announcement is a victory for parents and educators who had urged Morath to discount STAAR scores.

Last month, a group of parents sued the state in an attempt to block it from using STAAR scores results to make grade promotion decisions for younger students, including grades other than 5th and 8th, or to decide whether they should attend summer school.

“A large part of the relief which we were seeking has been voluntarily given by the [Texas Education Agency],” said the parents' lawyer, Scott Placek, describing it as “a good first step." "They know the administration of this year’s STAAR is indefensible."

Further review of the announcement is needed before they can decide whether to drop the lawsuit, Placek said. It seems that the exam scores still will appear in students’ records regardless of whether they are used to decide whether to promote them, he noted. 

“They could completely toss the scores out, which in a way I think they’re trying to do without doing it,” he said, describing an ideal scenario.

Disclosure: Educational Testing Service has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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