Op-Ed: Stop using STAAR to punish children, teachers and schools

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. Schools bought lunch for teachers. Students wrote thank you cards. But the gift that teachers really want is time to teach our students — time away from endless practice STAAR tests and test prep. Instead of STAAR prep, our students need time for meaningful, rigorous and developmentally appropriate teaching and learning. 

It is ironic and demoralizing that Teacher Appreciation Week happens in May, the month devoted to STAAR testing. 

This year, instead of focusing on STAAR, public schools should have focused on helping students survive the harmful effects of COVID, particularly in communities of color where COVID hospitalizations are more than three times the population.  

Unfortunately, it is business as usual in most schools, particularly schools serving poor children.  

Our experience, teaching children in high poverty communities in Aldine ISD and Houston ISD, is that STAAR and the associated sanctions perpetuates inequality and takes away precious time from learning.

We are experienced teachers and we love our students. But what we are being asked to do during COVID is unsustainable. One of us currently teaches 51 elementary students every day — 21 students in-person and 30 online. The normal elementary teacher workload is 22-25 students. We work 60 hours per week, including late-night phone calls and texts and even transporting students for tutorials. 

It is also drilled in our heads that everything is riding on this test. We are required to spend about a third of every class on STAAR prep after winter break. After spring break, almost every class day is STAAR prep. STAAR is everything in this state, so much so that Texas is one of only

11 states that require a standardized test for graduation. 

Even though many of our students lack pens, paper, and adequate connectivity at home, they are still being forced to take STAAR. One beginner ESL student has had intermittent wifi all year. He recently learned to say, “How are you?” and “I like pizza.” He was forced to take the four-hour STAAR English test. 

This year Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said that due to COVID, STAAR will not be used for promotion in grades 3-8, nor will schools be given A-F grades. However, in February, “Morath said TEA still will require schools to administer the test for students learning in-person to see where they are this year after the academic disruptions forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Making matters worse, HB 3731 is before the Texas Legislature right now. It would expand the Texas Education Agency’s punitive takeover authority based on STAAR scores even more than before.

According to the Texas Association of School Boards, this bill — authored by Houston Rep. Harold Dutton — “would almost instantly cause more districts and campuses to be subject to sanctions by arbitrarily increasing the accountability threshold in the middle of a pandemic.” 

We question why students must take STAAR, when our children have taken more diagnostic tests, practice tests and district-level assessments this year than ever before. Surely this data, along with teachers’ expert opinions, can shed light on these academic disruptions.

Furthermore, STAAR is not a valid or reliable measure of student learning in the classroom. One study found that STAAR scores correlate more with socio-economic status than they do with learning. In spite of this, Texas uses STAAR scores to make high stakes decisions about the performance of districts, schools, teachers, and students. Schools with more poor students are rated D or F and are punished, while wealthier schools get A’s and are rewarded, regardless of actual classroom learning.

More STAAR test prep is not what our students need right now. But TEA prefers to pay $90 million dollars annually to a third-party vendor for unnecessary testing rather than providing teachers and schools additional funding and time to help students learn.

Most parents, teachers, and students agree that STAAR testing should have been canceled this year. We should be focusing on helping students in the middle of a pandemic, not prepping for STAAR.

Certainly, we need diagnostic testing to identify student needs. But STAAR is not a diagnostic tool. Instead it has been used to close schools, fire teachers and shame children as young as eight years old. Parents across the state are being told that their children will have to attend summer school and will not be promoted this year if they do not pass STAAR. These untrue threats are being utilized despite TEA stating that STAAR will not be used for promotion this year. 

It is too late to cancel STAAR this year. But it is not too late to demand that STAAR not be used for graduation or for promotion in the future. 

Urge your elected representative to support bills like HB 3668 and HB 999. The first would end the use of STAAR for graduation and reduce the number of required STAAR tests. The other would temporarily provide alternative pathways for graduation for students impacted by COVID. Urge them to also oppose HB 3731 and other school takeover bills. 

As parents, join us in fighting the inappropriate use of STAAR data. If you are virtual, stay home and don’t take the STAAR. TEA says you don’t have to. If you are face to face, opt out of the STAAR test and stay home during testing.

Rachel Clarke is an Aldine ISD teacher and parent. Maria Fernandez is an HISD parent. Aurelia Wagner is an HISD teacher. They are members of Community Voices for Public Education.

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