Texas schools need the STAAR to assess and recover from pandemic learning loss

Michael Wood, Director, Education & Workforce

Standards-aligned assessments, such as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, have long been a fundamental component of Texas’ public education system. These tests, conducted annually in core subject areas in 3rd through 12th grades, offer parents and lawmakers an objective measure by which to evaluate student achievement and identify schools and districts across the state that are exceeding or falling short of expectations.

The Dallas Regional Chamber (DRC) is a strong supporter of standardized student assessments because they help create a robust public school accountability system that ensures Texas school districts are preparing students for future workforce success. The STAAR, and other similar assessments, provide both school leaders and community members with critical information to monitor student progress, highlight inequities, and identify areas that need improvements.

The importance of student assessments has only heightened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Through widespread school closures and persistent academic disruptions, the past year’s health crisis has threatened student achievement at all levels. Limited student assessment opportunities since the outset of the pandemic have also obscured the full extent of learning loss, leaving the true severity of the so-called “COVID slide” unclear.

That ambiguity, if left unresolved, will handicap academic recovery efforts statewide.

For that reason, both national and state education agencies have emphasized the urgent need for robust student assessments. In December, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that it would require school districts to administer the STAAR while pausing the state’s public school accountability system. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance mandating the administration of state exams while providing a pass on federal accountability standards.

We applaud these decisions, which recognize the critical importance of student assessment data and grant school districts relief from academic disruptions outside of their control.

For Texas, this guidance means that this year’s STAAR will not be used to rate local schools and districts, evaluate and compensate teachers, or assess a student’s readiness to graduate or advance to the next grade level. Instead, test results will be used strictly for informational and planning purposes.

Standardized tests, like the STAAR, are uniquely valuable in diagnosing learning gaps, both for individual students and in aggregate across classrooms, schools, and districts. If used wisely, test results can inform instructional plans for students and help school district leaders focus limited resources on campuses with the greatest need. This year, testing data will also provide school administrators and state leaders with the data they need to direct unprecedented amounts of federal relief funding earmarked for public education.

Locally, Dallas ISD is proof of the value of student assessments. Over the past decade, Dallas ISD has increasingly leveraged student assessment data to drive strategic interventions that have fueled the district’s remarkable turnaround. Through testing data, Dallas ISD has identified and placed its best teachers at its highest-needs campuses while implementing other strategies, such as extended instructional time and tutoring supports, for students that need them most.

Through these investments, Dallas ISD has drastically reduced its number of improvement-required schools and outpaced state growth on key academic benchmarks, such as 3rd grade literacy and postsecondary readiness. Before the pandemic, Dallas ISD was one of the fastest-improving school districts in the nation and rapidly transforming into a premier urban school system.

Moving into the new school year, state and local education leaders should adopt Dallas ISD’s data-driven approach to effectively recover COVID-19 learning loss. Outcomes from STAAR testing this spring will, in part, provide much-needed guidance for policymakers to direct resources toward students and schools that have lost the most ground amid the pandemic.

The present health crisis has taken an unprecedented toll on our state education system. Understanding the impact on learning, while challenging, is a necessary step toward accelerating academic recovery and preparing all students for college and career success.