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Judge Denies State's Request to Toss STAAR Suit

After a group of parents sued the Texas Education Agency over the 2016 administration of STAAR exams, state lawyers argued they had no standing and asked the courts to drop the case. A Travis County district court judge has denied their request.

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After a group of parents sued the Texas Education Agency over the 2016 administration of STAAR exams, state lawyers argued this summer that the parents had no standing and asked the courts to drop the case.

This week, the first day of school for many Texas children, Travis County District Court Judge Stephen Yelenosky denied their request in a one-page order with no further explanation.

The decision, which comes after a recent hearing, means the lawsuit brought by parents from Houston, Wimberley, Austin and Orangefield — whose children were in the third, fifth and eighth grades last school year — will be able to proceed. 

The lawsuit, filed against the education agency in Travis County district court, argues that spring 2016 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness scores are invalid because the exams were not administered under parameters laid out in House Bill 743. The legislation, passed last year with bipartisan support, requires the state to design STAAR exams so that a majority of elementary and middle school students can complete them within a certain period of time (two hours for third- through fifth-graders and three hours for sixth- through eighth-graders.)

In court filings, state lawyers said the agency complied with the new statute and also asked the court to toss the suit due to lack of "harm" to students. 

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the agency hadn't seen Monday's order and so could not comment. 

Education Commissioner Mike Morath, listed as the primary defendant in the suit, threw out all grade promotion consequences for fifth and eighth graders this year because of score delays under a new testing vendor, the filings note. They also say that students could have been advanced to the next grade by a graduation committee regardless of Morath's decision, and that there are no such consequences for third-graders. The filing also says there is "no allegation any of the plaintiffs failed or were specifically harmed by the allegedly noncompliant test — or even that the length of the test affected the child’s performance in any way."

But the parents would like to see all scores thrown out. Their lawyer Austin-area lawyer, Scott Placek, who hailed Monday's decision as a "big victory," said they will keep fighting until that happens.

"The judge said without qualifications they have the right to be there and they have the right to have their case heard, and so we're in the position now where the case can really go forward," he said. "I think we'll look to move the discovery expeditiously and get to trial as quickly as we can because kids are being impacted already as they head back to school."

The decision comes the same day the crowdfunded plaintiffs, members of a grassroots group called The Committee to Stop STAAR, announced they had secured an education agency report via an open records request showing STAAR administration did not comply with the law.

Their lawsuit was filed amid a fresh and fervent wave of dissent against the STAAR exams, a more rigorous series of tests first introduced in 2012. It was fueled by widespread logistical and technical issues with this year's administration under a new testing vendor, New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service, which has declined to comment on the issues.

Read more of our coverage related to STAAR exams:

  • More Texas school districts and charter schools are failing in 2016, though the number of individual campuses that received that label decreased.
  • A special panel recommending changes to the state’s public school testing and accountability system has stopped short of proposing that Texas scrap the controversial assessment regime known as STAAR.

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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