TEXAS VIEW: Cancel the in-person STAAR testTHE POINT: Schools get a pass. Kids should too.

After nearly a year of an educational environment pulled apart by a pandemic, many are at the breaking point. Now the state of Texas is adding to the load.
We struggle to understand the trade-off in priorities — accountability over safety — that has prompted the Texas Education Agency to insist that all students report for in-person STAAR testing and that high school students pass end-of-course exams to graduate. Our questions to the agency went unanswered but TEA owes Texas families an explanation.
Even in an ordinary school year, the merits of the STAAR as an accurate measure of learning are debatable. When instruction has been fractured and uneven, a standardized test cannot be a fair barometer. How can it pinpoint learning gaps without taking into account the wildly different levels of instruction children are receiving or the impact of compound traumas on scores?
It is foolhardy to proceed with the STAAR, especially since this year the test will not count toward school accountability. School administrators get a pass — but kids don’t?
Forcing students to take the test in-person, adding to their stress and potentially exposing them and their teachers to a deadly virus seems counter to the priorities of safety, flexibility and parental discretion that have thus far guided state policies. The stakes for high school seniors — those in virtual classes who don’t show up for the exams may not be able to graduate — seems needlessly callous.
Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education, alluded to that during his confirmation hearing last Wednesday: “If the conditions under COVID-19 prevent a student from being in school in person, I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them.”
Fact is, the blanket testing mandate on public schools across Texas doesn’t take into account the varying degrees to which districts and schools are adhering to safety protocols or the fact that one exposure is enough to contract the virus. There are vigilant parents who haven’t sent their children back to in-person classes because they distrust, often for good reason, the commitment of local school officials to take COVID-19 seriously.
The state is allowing districts to set up satellite centers that will “accommodate testing while maintaining strong public health practices.” Districts can also apply for waivers so students not scheduled to take the STAAR could learn remotely, freeing up space for test-takers to social distance.
But so far, TEA has not specified any coronavirus prevention measures during testing. And what about the time and resources needed to set up alternate testing sites or the impact on districts whose budgets are already tight?
“We’re in the middle of a life-threatening pandemic,” state Rep. Alma Allen, D-Dallas, said last Wednesday at a press conference where Texas House Democratic Caucus members called for the cancellation of the in-person STAAR. “We also cannot ask our teachers or our school personnel, students and families to put themselves at risk for an unnecessary test. Let me emphasize unnecessary.”
Educators don’t need a test to tell them what is known: Many Texas students, grappling with cascading pandemic stresses and disruptions, are struggling. Failure rates are up. Attendance is spotty. Kids are experiencing high levels of depression and anxiety.
Those considerations are why state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, has filed a bill to cancel this year’s STAAR and why a growing number of states are requesting federal waivers to cancel their own standardized tests. The Biden administration extended the deadline for waivers but needs to act decisively by granting states permission to forgo the tests, as the Trump administration did last spring.
Last March, Gov. Greg Abbott made the wise choice of canceling STAAR tests, noting then: “Your health and safety are top priorities, and the state of Texas will give school districts flexibility to protect and ensure the health of students, faculty and their families.”
At the time, Texas had only recorded one death from COVID-19, compared with the current toll of 2.4 million cases and more than 37,000 deaths.
While it’s true that Texas, and the world, has learned a great deal about the coronavirus in the past year, including how to prevent it, its continued spread and worrisome mutations show we still have a lot to learn. Abbott should keep “health and safety” as top priorities — far above a faulty barometer of statewide student performance, made even less effective by erratic variations in instruction this past year.
Great risk + questionable benefit = one responsible choice: cancel the in-person STAAR.