This article has been updated.

San Antonio school districts are striving to plan socially distanced, state-mandated standardized tests this spring, while many politicians are calling for the cancellation of in-person exams amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas public school students must take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) in person this spring, even if they are learning virtually. The state canceled the standardized exams for the 2019-20 school year after the pandemic sent students home in March, but state Education Commissioner Mike Morath has said he would not seek the necessary federal waivers to suspend the tests again this year, as other states have done.

New guidance from the Texas Education Agency gives school districts more flexibility in administering the standardized tests this year. They may apply for state waivers to require students not scheduled to take the STAAR to learn remotely on testing days to allow for more social distancing. They also may spread out testing days for students taking the exams online.

“Additional testing days are optional and at the discretion of the district. However, districts should consider the potential impact of not having the assessment data to better understand how well students have mastered knowledge and skills in various grades and subjects,” the guidance states.

But members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus questioned that logic during a virtual press conference Wednesday in which they called for the cancellation of the STAAR.

“We are asking for a lot from our students only to find out that they did not do well,” state Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) said. “We know what the test will reveal.”

Allen said if the state wants to see where students are academically it should give students a diagnostic test, which is not what the STAAR is. Also, she said, requiring schools to bring in all students in person means having more bus drivers, clerks, cafeteria staff, and other school workers come to work, creating the potential for more exposure to COVID-19.

“The best alternative is to trust our administrators and our teachers to do their job, which is to assess their students and educate their students,” State Rep. John Bucy (D-Austin) said during the press conference.

Additionally, Bucy said, he believes Gov. Greg Abbott and Morath should seek a testing waiver from the federal Education Department, which mandates annual standardized exams. He believes President Joe Biden’s administration would grant the waiver after hearing Texas plans to make students take the tests in person during the pandemic, when Biden’s top priority right now is to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Biden’s pick for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, said during his confirmation hearing Wednesday that he also does not think students need to be brought into school just to test them, Chalkbeat reported. He also said students need to be assessed so educators know how to close learning gaps.

On Monday, state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) sent a letter to Morath, requesting the TEA create a way for students to opt out of taking the STAAR. The letter was signed by 67 other state representatives. Bernal cites health concerns in increasing COVID-19 transmission by bringing back the 46% of students who are learning remotely to take the tests.

“Since it is evident that the Agency has no plans to seek the federal waivers necessary to cancel the 2020-2021 administration of the STAAR, something we strongly believe the agency should reconsider, at a minimum it should allow students and their families the opportunity to opt out of the exam,” the letter states.

State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) has called for the cancellation of the STAAR and to reallocate the funds used to administer the exams to schools with high rates of economically disadvantaged students.

Meanwhile, school districts have already started planning how to test all their students in a safe environment. San Antonio Independent School District spokesperson Laura Short said the district plans to share its testing strategy with families and school leaders toward the end of February.

It’s unclear how many virtual learners will show up to take the tests. The state waived the grade promotion requirements for fifth and eighth grade students taking the STAAR. Students in those grades generally have to pass the standardized tests to advance to the next grade. High school students, however, still must pass their end of course exams to graduate.

Even though STAAR is required this year, the state’s results-based rating system for schools and their districts remains paused.

Carin Adermann, Northside ISD’s testing and evaluation director, said the district already tested some high school students in December for their end of course exams. While there are some alternative options for students to graduate without passing their end of course exams, those options generally require students to attempt to take the exams first, she said.

“We’re legally mandated to offer the opportunity to every eligible tester, so we are going to plan and prepare for that opportunity,” Adermann said. “If a parent of a virtual learner is not comfortable sending their child to school, we still respect that decision.”

NISD intends to share its testing plans, which will differ by campus, at the end of February. Adermann said she is working with each individual campus to implement a unique testing strategy that fits the needs of each of the district’s 121 campuses.

North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika said in a video to families that the district will hold the exams over several days to allow space for social distancing in testing areas. The district will continue to follow public health guidelines while administering the tests, which he said are still important to take without the grade promotion requirements for some students.

“While a test score doesn’t tell us everything about a student’s progress, it is critical that parents and educators have data to understand the impact of the pandemic on children, their learning, and where areas of instructional focus should be,” he said.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum

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