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State unlikely to move STAAR test dates for Harvey-displaced students

The Texas education commissioner said he was not likely to delay required state test administration dates for students displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath attends a meeting with local officials in Victoria, Texas, about post-Harvey school issues on Sept. 8, 2017.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday morning that the state was not likely to let students displaced by Hurricane Harvey delay a required state test this school year — or to change the way school districts are graded at the end of the school year.

"I would say, given the information I have, it doesn't look likely that we would be able to make too many changes on assessment, and for that matter, on accountability," Morath told the State Board of Education. "We haven't made any final decisions yet. But we still want to make sure students know how to read, write and do math."

Educators and advocates for fewer state tests said they were dismayed by Morath's statement and hope he will consider waiving requirements for southeast Texas districts that have had to postpone classes. State Rep. Dan Huberty, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he has heard from constituents on the matter and will hold a public hearing in the next few weeks to consider how the Legislature can help schools impacted by August's storm.

Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he plans to invite educators from all impacted schools to testify.

The Texas Education Agency has set its next administrations of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, for a series of dates in March and May. Moving test dates for the 1.4 million students affected by the storm or for the 3.5 million students who take STAAR each year would be "logistically difficult," said Lauren Callahan, agency spokesperson. "As of yet, we have not found a solution that would indicate that any kind of change is coming."

More than 200,000 people signed a Pearland ISD teacher's petition to Texas political leaders advocating for canceling the exam and using the money to rebuild schools damaged by the hurricane.

Texas Aspires, a policy organization advocating for more state tests, argued Morath is right not to delay the tests. "If our focus is on getting students and teachers safe, dry, and back in schools learning again, a test that happens in March or May shouldn't be an issue," said Courtney Boswell, Texas Aspires executive director.

As of now, the state will use test scores from this school year to determine how school districts are graded in 2018, as part of a brand-new accountability system the Texas Legislature overhauled this June. For the first time, next August, instead of receiving an official pass or fail, school districts will receive a grade between A and F.

Individual schools will not receive their first official grades until August 2019.

Hundreds of educators unsuccessfully organized last year to prevent the new system from going into effect after the state presented districts and schools with unofficial grades they said did not accurately represent their performance.

Without a delay or change in the system, educators said, the 2018 grades might be similarly unrepresentative for Harvey-affected school districts.

"We had a dramatic and traumatic event just occur that affected so many folks in the southeast Texas area," said Bret Champion, superintendent of Klein ISD, located just north of Houston. "We absolutely are about teaching rigorous material around academics, but we also provide for an awful lot of social-emotional wellness" for traumatized students.

Champion suggested the state consider moving the test dates back. Klein ISD students missed seven days of classes, as administrators surveyed flooded buildings. Teachers and students are still cleaning out flooded homes, and some have lost everything. "A little more time to be able to assess that would be helpful," he said.

Two advisory groups of educators, legislative representatives and businesspeople meet twice a year to discuss the accountability system for school districts and advise Morath on how to implement it. Laura Yeager, who has served as an adviser for the past two years, said she will bring up waiving accountability grades for school districts at the upcoming October meeting.

"I'm not sure how they can rate a district or student on growth when they have lost or gained so many students," said Yeager, who is also a board member of Texans Advocating for Meaningful State Assessment, which has lobbied the Legislature for fewer state tests.

Morath also said Wednesday that the state education agency had the power to move money in its two-year budget to spend more in 2018 than 2019, to help school districts dealing with decreased funding due to “rapid declines in enrollment.”

With that plan, schools would not have to wait for Texas’ top officials to decide whether to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund, a state reserve from oil and gas taxes. Morath said the Legislature could then use the Rainy Day Fund to plug the funding hole for public schools in the 2019 legislative session — a plan Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick seemed to back in a recent conversation with reporters about reimbursing state agencies. 

"We would replace that money from either general revenue, or most likely the Rainy Day Fund," Patrick said. "If this isn't a rainy day, I don't know what is. And we would do that when we would come back to meet in 2019."

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