Some high school students recently took the STAAR tests on campus as required by the state, and more students will take it this spring, including students with disabilities. The Texas Education Agency recently decided to continue with the testing during this academic school year, but districts and schools will not be rated on the “A-to-F” scale based on performance.
The decision not to rate districts and schools is a good start, but Texas should go further and eliminate the STAAR this spring, particularly for the benefit of students with disabilities.
Texas consistently struggled to provide a high-quality education to students with disabilities prior to the pandemic, which makes the continuation of testing more troubling. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education found that the TEA implemented a problematic accountability indicator leading to the widespread delay and denial of special education to eligible students with disabilities.
Texas was required to take immediate action, but a recent report concluded that the state did not make sufficient progress. Texas also violated a federal law for reducing special education funding. These shortcomings have made educating students with disabilities during the pandemic even more difficult.
As education researchers who have studied this issue, we’ve had conversations with families, educators and school administrators across the state, and we see that some are struggling to adequately serve students with disabilities. Special education teachers are often stretched too thin by schools that maintain two simultaneous teaching schedules – thanks to the pandemic. One for those students physically attending school and another for those participating virtually.
Many students with disabilities are going without their necessary services and supports. Many special educators cannot provide the same type of individualized instruction through remote platforms.
This is deeply troubling and hurts our most vulnerable Texans. And it is all exacerbated by the state’s shortcomings in special education and a pandemic that significantly disrupted the entire education system.
It is true that the state is concerned with collecting data on student achievement, and as the TEA commissioner noted weeks ago, “Absent the STAAR test, you’re not going to have a valid, reliable view of grade-level mastery of student skills.”
We disagree. The state’s justifications come at too high a cost. Testing data will not be valid or reliable because of the variation in how the pandemic has disrupted schools and individual students. Requiring students to physically attend school is also risky and can increase virus transmission.
This is not just our opinion, but also the opinion of a bipartisan coalition of legislators and Texas educator advocacy groups that have called for the STAAR to be canceled this year.
Texas students with disabilities have not been treated fairly. And now is not the time to implement testing that is expensive, time consuming and labor intensive. It requires educators and staffers to rearrange schedules, distribute and collect materials, and skip out on instructional time. Having students with disabilities test and retest without providing appropriate instruction is akin to setting them up for failure and will probably affect their self-esteem.
Texas should cancel STAAR testing immediately through the remainder of the school year. If the state wishes to have data to track student progress, it should consider allocating resources to support teachers in creating alternative assessments. The state can also provide schools with funds to audit missed special education services and an action plan to address these missed services when the pandemic concludes.
The state’s investment into testing during a pandemic is risky and comes at too great a cost, particularly for students with disabilities. We hope Texas reconsiders testing during this pandemic and considers further improvements into special education and a testing system that utilizes multiple measures and does not set vulnerable students up for failure.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.
María Del Carmen Unda is a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership and Policy Department at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.