Gov. Greg Abbott affirmed Monday that Texas public school students will take standardized exams in the coming school year and that the state will give campuses and districts letter grades based in part on student performance on these tests.

However, exam results won’t determine whether a student advances to the next grade, the governor said. The state typically requires school systems to use results on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests when deciding whether a student can advance to the next grade level.

“This will be a uniquely challenging school year, therefore, this year is about providing students every opportunity to overcome the disruptions caused by COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement. “By waiving these promotion requirements, we are providing greater flexibility for students and teachers, while at the same time ensuring that Texas students continue to receive a great education – which we will continue to measure with high quality assessments.”

In typical years, most fifth and eighth grade students who don’t pass the STAAR exam will still be promoted to the next grade level if a grade placement committee determines that the student is likely to perform appropriately with additional instruction.

In 2018, 97 percent of fifth grade students who didn’t get a high enough STAAR score in reading or math still moved on to the next grade level. That same year, the placement committee advanced to ninth grade 99 percent of eighth graders who didn’t get a high enough score in reading and 98 percent of eighth graders who didn’t get a high enough score in math.

Abbott’s announcement comes as pressure from teacher groups mounts to cancel or delay the STAAR exams and federal education officials have indicated there will be no waivers that will excuse states from administering tests in the coming school year.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education granted waivers, exempting all 50 states from administering testing that is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Accordingly, Abbott announced in mid-March that he would scrap STAAR.

But on Friday, Assistant Education Secretary Jim Blew said in a virtual Education Writers’ Association session that it is unlikely those same waivers will be granted again.

“There are so many benefits to testing and it allows for some transparency about how schools are performing and the issues we need to address, that our instinct would be to decline those waivers,” Blew said.

In early July, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told the State Board of Education that the same cancellation would not occur in 2020-21. The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers vowed to push back on these plans.

“To say this is a tone-deaf move by TEA would be an understatement,” a Texas AFT statement said. “Mandating STAAR testing with no end to the pandemic in sight, no way of knowing how schools will be able to open and stay open, much less provide quality instruction to all students, is cruel.”

On Monday, Morath described STAAR as a way for parents to know how well their children have learned grade level knowledge and skills in reading and math. This, he said, was needed “especially in a time when education has been substantially disrupted.”

“But there is no benefit to our children by requiring them to repeat a year based on a single test score given the disruptions of COVID, so we are waiving the grade promotion requirements from STAAR this year for our students,” Morath said in a statement.

TEA also plans to continue grading schools and districts with A-F scores. These letter grades were canceled for 2019-20 along with the STAAR exam.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.