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After a tumultuous year that has seen students falling behind and teachers simultaneously conducting classes remotely and in person, Texas public schools face a pressurized final six weeks full of standardized testing and makeup assignments.
Keren Jackson, a high school English teacher in the San Marcos Independent School District, has until April 30 to offer extra-credit projects or assignments to students who failed classes during the fall semester. She also has to spend several school days during the next month administering the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness to her students.
“I wish that society would take this as an opportunity to realize that students all learn differently at different paces depending on their environment and their interests and their learning desires, and that maybe we need more than one standard of education,” Jackson said.
Although millions of students continue to learn remotely, the state is expecting them to take STAAR tests in person in school buildings this spring. Elementary and middle school students will not be penalized for skipping the assessments, and the Texas Education Agency has said missing the tests will not prevent a student from moving on to the next grade level. But high schoolers still must pass five subject-specific exams to graduate. Some districts are also making teachers administer iReady reading tests and short-cycle assessments meant to evaluate STAAR readiness. That means certain students across the state could spend three of the final six weeks of the school year taking standardized tests.
A spokesperson for TEA said that STAAR test results from this school year will help lawmakers and educators identify subject areas needing improvement and develop solutions for making up learning gaps in the coming years.
But several teachers, students and parents across Texas argued that administering such high-stakes assessments during a pandemic is counterproductive and puts undue pressure on the kids themselves. Many K-12 public school students have lost loved ones to COVID-19, gotten sick and struggled to stay engaged with their schooling this year. According to a recent report from Texas Appleseed, 42% of students in Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, failed at least one class during the first grading period of the 2020-21 academic year. In an average year, just 11% of Houston ISD students fail one or more classes.
“I have far more students at home reporting poor mental health, seeing counselors or needing to see a counselor but needing help getting that support,” Jackson said. “A lot more kids are writing about hanging on by a thread or feeling down.”
Chareena Crawford, the mother of a high school senior in Cedar Park, said her daughter, who usually thrives in her academics and social life, has faced the same mental health pressures confronting many Texans during the pandemic.
“She has really, really been struggling to the point where she’s on medication now. She talks to a therapist, and she has just really been depressed and down, and I won’t pretend to understand why that is,” Crawford said. “I know that she has friends, I know that she was very social when she was in school, so just going away from that and not having that interaction at all, I know that that’s taken a really, really big toll on her.”
In Houston, Layla Gantz has watched her 8- and 9-year-old sons, Trace and Patrick, struggle desperately to overcome the challenges of the pandemic and remote learning. Patrick, who is dyslexic, especially needs hands-on attention from the right teachers to keep up with state learning requirements for a third grader.
Thankfully, the two boys were able to return to in-person school in August, which gave Layla a chance to breathe and helped them stay engaged during classes.
But then the winter storm hit. Their home’s entire plumbing system failed. Forced to stay somewhere else, both Patrick and Trace contracted COVID-19 while exposed to others during the storm. While recovering, they missed another two weeks of school.
“We’re living somewhere else. We’re waiting on repairs, and I’m trying to get the kids to school,” Gantz said. “It’s been a true nightmare, and I worry about that with Patrick because of his dyslexia. He’s got this testing coming up, and a lot of times on multiple choice, he guesses.”
Several teachers said the state's education leaders should focus on helping students survive a pandemic, rather than trying to sustain curriculum and testing as if this were a normal year. Some students have stopped showing up to class or given up on learning this year, and educators say the priority now should be finding those students and providing them with mental and physical health resources.
In January, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that nearly 1.4 million Texas households with children experienced food insecurity in the last seven days, according to the Texas Appleseed report. Hispanic or Latino households accounted for a staggering 63% of all food insecure homes with children in the state.
“If you’ve got someone who is full of stress and anxiety because they don’t know where their next meal is, they’re probably not gonna learn well, which is why how kids do on tests is directly related to their income level,” said Laura Yeager, a founder of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessments.
Melissa Cooper and Dick Frazier, both Austin ISD teachers, said lawmakers and other state leaders tend to value standardized testing because it offers an easy way to measure performance and learning progress. But they both pointed out that the education system often fails to reflect the best practices for helping students learn based on their individual capabilities.
And when a student stops coming to school or doing their work, making sure they’re OK should be more important than trying to help them pass a test, according to Cooper.
“The system of education is not truly designed for children,” Jackson said. “It’s designed for what society is demanding from people as adults, and trying to get them to a certain readiness for the workplace by a certain age is really a societal construct.”
Many educators, parents and advocates said all students should pass this year and move on to the next grade level regardless of their performance on upcoming assessments. Most young people closely associate their identities with their year in school, and failing or being held back can have devastating consequences for a child’s mental health, Layla Gantz said,
“Nobody should be penalized for something that we couldn’t control as a nation,” Gantz said. “And just to make it through this alive with your family and be ready for next year is an accomplishment, by far.”
Disclosure: Apple and Texas Appleseed have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.