San Antonio Independent School District trustees stood with Superintendent Pedro Martinez in the Alamodome at the beginning of the school year, wearing bee antenna headbands as a gold “B” balloon descended over the stage. Teachers from the district’s 90 campuses cheered.

The cause for celebration: the State awarded SAISD a B grade, an improvement after years of low performance.

This year, however, efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus closed schools in March, causing state officials to cancel the state’s standardized tests and suspend Texas’ school accountability system for the 2019-20 school year, so districts and schools won’t be graded on their performance. Much of the accountability system is based on results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests.

While most educators cheered the testing waiver, the disruption raised important questions. How will the time away from classrooms affect future STAAR scores? And without the most commonly used diagnostic tool to understand student achievement year-over-year, how will districts – and the State – assess student performance?

Districts use the letter grades awarded by the State to weigh their own performance, touting improvement, as SAISD did last summer, or pointing to a letter grade as a reason to change course. Some school administrators use STAAR outcomes to judge whether an educator is helping make sufficient academic gains each year. In addition, the State uses the letter grades to justify closing chronically low-performing campuses.

Impact on future years

Although districts won’t receive letter grades for 2019-20, the impact of the coronavirus closures on school scores won’t be limited to the current school year.

Seventy percent of the State’s letter grade comes from the better score in one of two categories: student achievement or student growth. Achievement measures how students perform on state exams and assessments of college, career, and military readiness; growth measures progress from one year to the next.

This allows campuses and districts to receive high marks if their students registered tremendous growth year-over-year, even if they still performed below grade level.

However, without STAAR data the State won’t be able to measure growth the same way in 2020-21, a Texas Education Agency spokesman said this week.

TEA plans to “work with stakeholders during the 2020-21 school year to make 2021 accountability recommendations and decisions regarding issues such as these,” spokesman Jake Kobersky said.

Brenda Ward, Northside ISD’s executive director of continuous improvement, worries this issue will disproportionately affect schools with low-income students who tend to perform better in the growth area.

“Our campuses … really work very hard, and the students make a lot of growth and it doesn’t always show in the [student achievement area],” Ward said. “They [schools] are bringing up students that could be far below grade level to close to grade level or on grade level.”

Ward identified this as a potentially huge disadvantage for many Texas districts. She hopes the state will consider not rating districts and campuses until 2021-22 or later.

Southside ISD’s Deputy Superintendent of Schools Fred Hayes hopes the elimination of state requirements for STAAR and letter grades creates an opportunity for local districts to hold themselves accountable.

“It’s an opportunity for us as a school system … to take this challenge and turn it into something positive for us that we can show that our students are doing well, that our schools are doing well without a rating, without a test,” Hayes said.

Data dependency

Theresa Urrabazo runs San Antonio ISD’s department of accountability, research, evaluation, and testing. In a normal year, she pores over testing data before STAAR exams, trying to forecast how SAISD students will perform.

This year’s forecasts had given Urrabazo reason for optimism. That’s why when Gov. Greg Abbott canceled STAAR exams and the TEA put accountability ratings on hold, Urrabazo had mixed feelings.

“It’s hard when you know the campuses have worked so hard and all of our prediction information from the middle-of-year data was pointing to us have a fabulous year,” Urrabazo said. “In one sense, I’m glad for students that they don’t have the pressure of testing, because who needs that right now? … But from an accountability perspective, campuses work so hard and we were on track to have one of our best years.

“Our hardest challenge is going to be [keeping] the momentum going.”

For North East ISD, the change to the accountability system will mean a delay in knowing whether improvement strategies undertaken at low-performing schools worked, spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said.

“But we continue doing work in those areas,” Chancellor said.

Now districts must make sure students are ready for next year and assess where they are after at least two months learning from home. Not all students in San Antonio have been in touch with their teachers or campuses since schools closed.

Regardless of uneven attendance or online instruction, students are still expected to take STAAR exams next year and demonstrate knowledge of material they were supposed to learn while campuses were closed.

For teachers, the challenge will be figuring out where to pick up instruction when school resumes, given that students may have had varying instructional experiences in their homes.

On top of that, without STAAR exams, there will be a year of missing data – often used to customize instruction per student and pinpoint who is falling behind.

Chancellor acknowledged that for NEISD, missing STAAR data could present a challenge. STAAR results give educators a fresh set of test scores to gauge how to go about future instruction.

“However, we are continuously doing formative assessments in the way of other testing created by central office, unit testing, benchmark exams, etc.,” Chancellor said. “So while we won’t have a summative exam – we still have a good sense of where our students are based on our formative assessments.”

Urrabazo believes SAISD also has a worthy alternative that will still give many teachers the information to plan for next year and understand the impact of campus closures. The district gives the MAP test to students in elementary and middle school at the beginning, middle, and end of the year to evaluate performance. The assessment is geared to an individual students’ knowledge and compared to peers nationwide, Urrabazo said.

Students haven’t taken the end-of-year exam, but the district is evaluating whether it can administer it, Urrabazo said.

“If we didn’t have MAP it would be like such a hole,” Urrabazo said.

Chloe Sikes, who works as the deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association, or IDRA, a nonprofit that advocates for equal educational opportunities, pointed to STAAR disruptions as evidence that the State should reconsider how much it relies on standardized assessments.

While Sikes recognizes that statewide assessments have a place in providing a uniform metric, IDRA sees flaws with the high-stakes nature of the exams.

“I do hope that we’ll be able to see some type of either extended option or some type of adjustments to how we really think about assessment and what is meaningful about assessment for school districts so that we move away from relying so heavily on a single standardized test that has high-stakes implications associated with it,” Sikes said.

High-stakes testing

For one San Antonio school, this year’s state standardized test results carried significant consequences. SAISD’s Ogden Academy failed to meet state standards for six consecutive years and needed to improve its performance or the State could close the school.

Now school leaders will have more time to turn things around and will face the consequences after next year’s tests.

For Chris Fraser, the senior dean and executive director of Relay Lab Schools at the Relay Graduate School of Education, which oversees Ogden Academy and nearby Storm Academy, news of the delay was disappointing.

“We believe we were in a really good position to do really well on the STAAR this year,” Fraser said. “That said, we’ll take the same tack next year.”

“This is true for every single school across the country, not just Ogden and Storm. We recognize that it is going to be a very, very challenging start to the school year. We are going to have to reset. We are going to have to address trauma for a lot of students who are going to be affected by this.”

Fraser acknowledged that student outcomes from at-home learning won’t be the same as in-person classes. But staff at Relay and Ogden will try their best.

“We’re going to do the best we can in the last month of this school year to make sure students end strong, and then whatever the beginning of the school year looks like next year, the pressure is going to be on again,” he said.

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.