In an unprecedented move, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he would waive testing requirements for this year’s STAAR exam, as many schools expect to be closed at least through the April testing window due to the new coronavirus.
He also said he would ask the federal government to waive this year's federal standardized testing requirements, which apply to all states. According to the state, as of Sunday afternoon, 569 school districts had announced closures due to coronavirus concerns. Texas is not alone; more than 30 states have closed schools due to coronavirus, affecting at least 30 million public school students nationwide.
Some of the state’s larger school districts announced Monday they would extend the length of their closures. Houston ISD, the largest, will be closed through April 10; Dallas ISD, the second largest, will be closed indefinitely.
The federal government has previously said it might give out targeted waivers from testing for areas where the COVID-19 disease has had significant impact.
The state will not mandate that districts offer the exam, but some superintendents may want the test data to see how their students are doing, according to the Texas Education Agency. Agency officials are working to support those school districts, if necessary.
The governor's announcement comes a day after Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents and lawmakers on two separate phone calls to prepare for long-term school district closures, potentially through the end of the school year, especially in areas where the new coronavirus has spread.
Lawmakers from both parties, as well as school superintendents, had been calling on the state to cancel the test since it became clear students would miss many days of school when districts started extending their spring breaks for a week or two.
Morath said in a statement Monday morning that Abbott had made the right decision on testing: "We are thankful for Governor Abbott’s willingness to waive the STAAR testing requirement, as it allows schools the maximum flexibility to remain focused on public health while also investing in the capacity to support student learning remotely."
State leaders are giving schools more leeway than they have in the past, showing the increasing seriousness surrounding the COVID-19 disease.
When Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston-area and Coastal Bend communities in 2017, Morath hesitated to give them a break on testing or accountability requirements, arguing that doing so would harm student learning. He argued that getting rid of state testing requirements would violate federal requirements and put federal funding at risk.
Eventually he agreed not to hold poor STAAR results against schools and districts, though he did not waive the requirement that they test students.
"Accountability results have been waived for Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey. But never has testing itself been waived," said Dee Carney, a longtime school accountability consultant in Texas. "It's absolutely an unprecedented event requiring extraordinary measures of our schools and our teachers and our communities."
It is not clear exactly what the implications are for students who need to take certain state tests in order to graduate from high school or move on to the next grade. Morath said he would send more specific guidance on student testing and school accountability this week, likely before Thursday.
State leaders have urged school districts to continue to instruct students remotely while they are absent or while schools are closed due to COVID-19, including providing equal access to students with special needs. Morath has said districts will not be financially penalized for student absences as long as they show they are providing remote instruction.
Not every school district has the resources or training necessary to provide quality online instruction, and many low-income students do not have access to reliable internet or have computers at home.