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Governor’s suspension of fifth-, eighth-grade promotion not enough for some locals

Elisabeth Tatum, an elementary teacher gearing up for her second year in the Port Arthur Independent School District, said Texas’ attempt to cut down on mandatory state testing is a step in the right direction, but still not enough.

“We will have students whose family members and friends will get deathly ill,” she said. “We have teachers who may as well. That is something major that we need to be able to focus on and address, not a standardized test.

“It’s not what all of the teachers and parents in Texas have been asking for at all. The state spends $90 million a year on this test. We aren’t asking for students to be moved to the next grade level, we can assess that on our own. We are asking to not have the test at all.”

Gov. Greg Abbott announced this week that grade promotion requirement related to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness Test for students in grades five and eight has been waived for the upcoming school year.

Typically, school systems must take into account a student’s score on the STAAR test to determine whether the student can be promoted to the next grade level.

With this waiver, there will only be one administration of the STAAR grades in fifth and eighth mathematics and reading assessments.

Tatum said STAAR should be canceled for at least the next two years.

“Mostly in part of the additional stress and anxiety it adds to the students and teachers as well,” she said. “These next years as an educator and pupil will be uncharted waters. We need to focus on the emotional and psychological health of our students and teachers.”

Tatum also believes the $90 million spent on testing is best distributed elsewhere in the classroom.

The Texas Education Agency spends $3 to $4 per a test. The remaining funds are spent on meetings, travel and hiring consultants.

“We want to know where the funds from the 2020 test that was waived went,” Tatum said. “Ninety million is a lot of money, obviously. Could you imagine what would be possible for public education in Texas if we were able to use that for purposes that actually benefit students, teachers and families?”

The Tyrrell Elementary School teacher said she hopes the governor will reconsider the proposition.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough,” she said.

Nederland ISD School Board President Micah Mosley, who earlier signed a petition, urging state officials to cancel the test, agreed.

“It doesn’t fully capture what our resolutions and recommendations were a month ago,” he said. “They need to come around to the idea of pushing the test off for another year as well.”

Mosley said each area across the state has been affected differently by COVID-19, and some may struggle with educational gaps.

“Right now, school districts are deciding to open virtually and many of us don’t know how many times we may have to close down again during the school year,” he said. “There is just too much uncertainty. The extra time needs to be spent on closing those gaps from the long shutdown we’ve had, not testing.”

The responses vying for Abbott to do more kick started with Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina.

Her released statement came only moments after the governor’s.

“We are glad the governor suspended the promotion requirements for fifth and eighth graders that are tied to STAAR scores for the upcoming school year, but he didn’t go far enough. STAAR testing will still be wasteful and stressful at a time when teachers, students and their parents are stressed out enough over a deadly pandemic.”

Molina’s statement also called for the suspension of the A-F accountability system and the T-TESS teacher appraisal system.

The Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System is designed to grade teacher performance based on planning, instruction, learning environment and professional practices.

Port Neches-Groves ISD fifth grade teacher Angela Lewis said principals often schedule formal and informal evaluations to determine teacher skills. Those evaluations factor into district STAAR scores.

“That doesn’t really bother me as much,” Lewis said. “The reason we as teachers want the STAAR to go away is because there are so many things kids missed last year. We know going into this year kids are going to be behind and we want to have that time to make sure their emotional well-being is on the forefront.”

Fifth grade is the first year students have to pass a test for grade promotion.

Lewis said it’s a very stressful period for students and parents.

“Having that pressure taken away, it really allows teachers to meet the emotional needs first and to devote our time to what students missed,” she said.

In Lewis’ classroom, STAAR is taught as a “genre.”

“I’m a reading teacher, so a little before the test I will teach testing as a genre,” she said. “I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the test. If I am teaching the state curriculum, then my students should do well on the test. So for me, it’s going to be business as usual.”

Usually in favor of state mandated tests, Lewis said she is still calling for this year’s cancellation.

“This year we need to worry about our children’s mental and social needs first,” she said. “We need to devote our time to doing what’s best for our kids.”