Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that he would waive state standardized testing requirements for this school year, citing a need to focus on public health over “all other priorities at this time.”

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said the Texas Education Agency (TEA) was thankful for Abbott’s decision to allow schools the maximum flexibility to remain focused on public health while investing in remote student learning.

With Abbott’s decision, the state seems to be preparing for school closures that are without precedent in modern Texas history.

“In normal times, STAAR serves as an invaluable tool to accurately and reliably diagnose how well students have learned to read, write, and do math,” Morath said in a prepared statement. “This year, though, it has become apparent that schools will be unable to administer STAAR as they would normally.”

Last Friday, San Antonio school districts announced they would extend spring break by one week and make plans to implement remote learning and meal distribution in order to prevent the spread of illness. As of Monday, students were scheduled to return to classrooms in most traditional public school districts next Monday in San Antonio. Standardized testing was supposed to begin in early April.

Each year, the state awards letter grades to districts and campuses. The letter grades are largely based on the results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exams. Consecutive failing grades carry a heavy consequence – if a campus fails enough times in a row, it could be closed.

This was the situation many families and students feared at Ogden Academy in San Antonio Independent School District, a school that received its sixth failing score last year. The future of the campus had been tied to students’ performance on the 2020 exam.

The TEA’s accountability manual states that a “not rated” grade, which can be assigned when STAAR results are missing, does not break the chain of consecutive years. That means that parents and educators at Ogden Academy could face similar pressure for improved STAAR results in 2020-21.

It is unclear how a missing 2019-20 test will shape how students statewide are evaluated for growth year over year.

The Monday announcement followed calls by a number of state lawmakers to cancel the standardized exams.

“In addition to the test anxiety we have unfortunately come to know and expect, we can anticipate heightened tension this year among students due to the pandemic,” State Sen. José Menéndez wrote in a letter to Morath on Saturday. “Given the weight of STAAR and [Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System] results in the overall rating of a campus and district, I urge you to cancel these testing requirements for the 2019-2020 school year.”

When Houston-area schools shuttered during Hurricane Harvey, students still sat for STAAR exams, but their results were not used and the campuses that had to close were not officially graded by the State.

A bigger challenge could emerge should school closures continue through the remainder of the semester, as Morath indicated could be a possibility on a phone call to superintendents Sunday. If campuses close and students are sent home to learn with remote learning resources for several weeks, it could be hard for teachers to understand what information students are absorbing.

Closures could disrupt the timeline state officials, school districts, and teachers use to determine how much a student should know by when. Next school year might have to begin with lessons that cover material from the last few weeks of the previous grade level.

Morath told superintendents on Sunday that they should not worry about state funding that is awarded based on average daily attendance. Funding will be provided as long as districts show proof they have been giving instructional supports to students, a participant in the conference call said.

A TEA spokesman told the Rivard Report that some districts asked TEA if they could still administer the STAAR exam for school and/or family use and analysis. TEA isn’t sure it will be possible to administer the STAAR, but plans to issue further guidance on the subject by Thursday.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.