Michael Wood, Director, Education & Workforce
“Everyone in business knows that if it matters, you must measure,” said Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. Secretary of Education and current President & CEO of Texas 2036. Secretary Spellings spoke in defense of standardized student assessments in public schools during a virtual event hosted by the Dallas Regional Chamber (DRC) on August 3. “We have to care enough to find out how our students are doing, especially those who have often been left behind.”
Secretary Spellings was joined by Dr. Jeannie Stone, Superintendent of Richardson ISD, and Shannon Trejo, Chief Academic Officer of Dallas ISD, for a discussion on the value of student assessments for Texas’ public schools and what those assessments can tell us about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student achievement.
Federal law, explained Spellings, requires annual assessment in reading and math once per year from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Texas state law layers additional requirements on top of the federal mandate, including end-of-course exams in high school and writing, social studies, and science tests at various points beginning in 3rd grade.
However, for school districts, student assessments are much more than a tool to comply with state and federal regulations.
“Accountability and state testing gets a bad rap,” said Dr. Stone. “But in the absence of it, you can’t set expectations for what educators are expected to do.”
Critically, state tests provide school districts with important data on student achievement. This data can help illuminate effective instructional practices, reveal inequities, and offer parents a transparent look into their student’s academic progress. School district leaders then leverage this data to inform broader resource allocation and course offerings. Educators, too, benefit from state testing results, allowing for the creation of individualized lesson plans to support each student’s unique needs.
This year, student assessment data helped underscore the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on learning. Nearly four out of every ten students failed to meet grade level standards on the STAAR, an up-tick of 16% over 2019 results when the test was last administered to students. The effect on reading was less pronounced, as roughly three out of every ten students did not meet grade level expectations, an increase of just 4% from 2019.
For high school students, losses in Algebra 1 were most severe, said Trejo, followed by Biology and U.S. History.
“[The implications] are enormous,” said Secretary Spellings of the test results. “That is why we have to light ourselves on fire with urgency, pull up and accelerate to get these students back on track.”
Importantly, there is significant funding available to public school districts to support accelerated learning. In 2019, the Texas Legislature approved sweeping reforms to the state’s school finance system, including an infusion of more than $6 billion into Texas’ public school districts.
On top of that, the state received more than $17 billion in stimulus from the federal government dedicated to public education. From that allocation, Dallas ISD received more than $500 million while Richardson ISD received nearly $100 million. Combined with data from the STAAR, these additional funds equip school districts with ample resources to target learning loss and put students back on a path toward college and career readiness.
“Especially this year, we are approaching instruction as unfinished,” said Trejo. “Our students haven’t lost [learning] necessarily, as much as they haven’t had an opportunity to finish the instruction. Our assessment repertoire is what’s going to help us understand how we can complete that job.”
To that end, both Dallas ISD and Richardson ISD are focused on adding instructional time for students such as through robust out-of-school programming including tutoring before and after the traditional school day. Dallas ISD has even approved two new school calendars which will add a total of 22 days of instruction throughout the year. Both districts are working to place their most effective teachers in front of students with the greatest need; an effort informed by assessment data.
Dallas ISD and Richardson ISD are also prioritizing social-emotional learning, citing adverse mental health impacts amid the pandemic.
“We’re bringing kids back to school—some of whom have not been in a school building for 16 months,” said Dr. Stone. “Making sure we are investing in resources to transition them back to school is key… We have to focus in on that basic need of safety and security.”
While STAAR administration resumed in 2021 after a pause in the spring of 2020, state accountability ratings for public schools have not yet been reintroduced. A new state law will provide every school district in Texas a pass on accountability ratings, typically given to both districts and campuses in the form of an “A” through “F” grade, until at least the 2022-23 academic year.
The extended pause creates challenges for stakeholders, including parents and the business community, in understanding how well their schools are performing. The onus, said Secretary Spellings, is now on the business community to “peek under the hood” at STAAR results to assess whether local districts and campuses are adequately accelerating learning and improving student outcomes.
Both school district leaders echoed Secretary Spellings’ concerns and countered the common criticism that the state’s public education accountability system is overly punitive on students, teachers, and campuses.
“I really believe that our accountability system—our assessments—are our milestones that help us know we are on the right path to college and career readiness,” said Trejo. “Without these milestones, we don’t know how to get them back on track.”