Several superintendents of San Antonio’s largest school districts expressed support this week for state Rep. Diego Bernal’s push to cancel annual standardized exams, or at least suspend sanctions based on exam scores for the 2020-2021 school year.

Bernal and 67 other state legislators signed a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Wednesday, requesting that the Texas Education Agency seek waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams for this school year. The bipartisan group of legislators agrees that the tests should only be used as an assessment tool for students and not as an instrument for grading or punishing school districts and individual campuses that perform poorly on the STAAR during the pandemic.

“The COVID Slide, an academic deficit that the agency has widely recognized, has resulted in students across the state being behind grade-level in nearly every subject.” Bernal wrote in the letter. “Instead of proceeding with the administration of the STAAR exam as planned, the agency, along with our districts and campuses, should be focused on providing high-quality public education with an emphasis on ensuring the health and safety of students and educators.”

A TEA spokesperson said the agency has no response to the letter at this time.

San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez still wants to administer the STAAR tests to measure students’ academic performance, but he does not believe the results of those exams should be used to punish districts or campuses, he said. It would not be fair to hold schools accountable for the standardized tests scores, considering the challenges teachers and students are facing right now.

“We’re seeing a lot of students struggle,” he said. “The data will be useful to us, as long as it’s not used in any sort of punishing way against the schools.”

Most of San Antonio ISD’s students are learning from home, or 74 percent, Martinez said, and many of them are at risk of failing classes, especially at the middle and high school levels. Additionally, teachers are struggling to connect with many of those remote learners, even while working long hours and offering evening and Saturday sessions for remote students.

San Antonio ISD had about 48,500 students enrolled last school year, according to the TEA. The district received a B rating from the agency for the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent data available.

TEA did not administer the STAAR or rate school districts last school year under its A through F accountability system because of the pandemic. Ratings are primarily based on student performance on the STAAR.

Gov. Greg Abbott already waived grade promotion requirements based on exam results for the current school year. In other school years, fifth and eighth grade students who did not pass the STAAR would have not advanced to the next grade, unless a grade placement committee determined the student was likely to perform better with additional instruction.

But that still leaves too much pressure on students to perform on the standardized tests, Northside Independent School District Superintendent Brian Woods said. The district had 107,135 students enrolled last school year and earned a B rating from the state for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the TEA.

“I appreciate legislators recognizing how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption to student progress and how that will definitely affect how they perform on the upcoming STAAR exam,” he said.

Woods agreed that there are benefits to using the exams as a tool to measure where students are academically, but he said he supports pausing accountability ratings.

Aubrey Chancellor, North East Independent School District executive director of communications, said by using STAAR scores as a mile marker for academic progress teachers can derive lesson plans based on those scores to get students back on track.

The school district had about 64,200 students enrolled last school year and earned a B rating from the state for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the TEA.

Several teacher unions and educational nonprofits, such as Raise Your Hand Texas, also have stated their support for canceling the STAAR or simply using it as a diagnostic tool.

“Schools are already academically diagnosing students through local formative assessments because parents, students, and teachers need to identify learning losses and implement interventions,” Raise Your Hand Texas said in a statement. “Any further assessments need to be meaningful to inform instruction, not punitive. If the STAAR test is to be administered this year, any A-F ratings for campuses or districts should be paused.”

The Texas American Federation of Teachers said in a statement that it would be unfair to measure students’ academic progress against the usual standards “in a year that has been anything but standard.”

“The Texas Education Agency and Morath have long recognized the COVID Slide as a real phenomenon, but only to argue for the reopening of schools, which puts teachers and students at risk,” the teachers union said in the statement. “Even with COVID-19 cases spiking across Texas, TEA continues to push forward with plans to administer high-stakes testing this year. Texas AFT continues to call for the TEA to suspend the STAAR test – and all associated high-stakes – for the 2020-2021 school year.”

The Texas State Teachers Association began calling for the TEA to seek waivers to cancel STAAR testing as early as June, President Ovidia Molina said in a statement. 

“Standardized testing should be the last priority for students, educators, and policymakers during the middle of a deadly pandemic, which now is getting worse,” she said. “Our students, educators and their families can’t afford the distraction of STAAR as they struggle to stay safe and continue to adjust to new methods of teaching and learning.”

Molina also pointed out that the exams cost millions of tax dollars at a time when school districts are losing millions of dollars in lost revenue because of the pandemic.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.