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Cancelling STAAR tests in Harvey's wake could wipe out federal funding, TEA leader says

Chron logo Chron 11/15/2017 Hearst Newspapers

Texas could lose "essentially all" federal funding for schools – which totalled about $6 billion last academic year – if the state decided to skip standardized testing in response to Hurricane Harvey, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Tuesday.

Morath's comments reinforce the widespread belief that Texas students will take the state's standardized tests, known as STAAR, this school year. Some parents and advocates have argued that the tests shouldn't be administered because students are more likely to perform poorly after missing class time and suffering trauma due to the hurricane and subsequent flooding.

Morath has given no indication he plans to cancel the tests. On Tuesday, he told legislators that skipping STAAR would put the state in violation of federal law, threatening its funding from Washington. Federal dollars account for about 10 percent of school funding.

Legislators asked Morath to inquire about the possibility of receiving a federal waiver for testing, but Morath sounded pessimistic.

"We don't think a waiver could be or would be granted. There's no precedent for that in federal history," Morath said.

HoustonChronicle.com: School leaders ask state to ease testing requirements after Harvey

If STAAR tests are administered, two major questions remain: Will the Texas Education Agency change the date of the exams? And how will school districts be graded – and in some cases, punished – based on students' scores?

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath keeps in contact with local officials. © Jason Hoekema, MBO Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath keeps in contact with local officials.

Morath said those questions will likely be answered before the end of the month. About two-thirds of school leaders surveyed by the Texas Education Agency voiced support for keeping the current test schedule in place, Morath said.

But several school superintendents and administrators this week advocated changing how campuses and districts are graded based on test scores. Schools and districts are expected to receive letter grades – A, B, C, D or F – based on various performance factors, including student scores on STAAR tests. Education leaders testified Tuesday that schools and districts affected by the storm should receive grades of "not rated."

Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg said her district's homeless student population has more than doubled – from about 500 last year to 1,146 after Hurricane Harvey – and nearly 300 instructional staff members "lost everything" in the flooding. She recommended storm-affected districts are given a "not rated."

"Taking the test is not the issue. It's what we do with (the results)," Bamberg said.

HARVEY: State working on school funding, testing plans after hurricane

Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers echoed the sentiment. He said school leaders are witnessing the storm's impact on behavior – with teachers and students occasionally getting in expletive-laden shouting matches.

"The trauma I'm seeing in schools and classrooms, I've never seen this in my 31 years," Chambers said. "I think there's a reasonable, rational way of (administering STAAR) that takes the pressure off of the teachers and doesn't negatively impact the children."

A one-time break in school accountability grades could benefit Houston ISD, which faces school closures or a state takeover of the district's Board of Trustees if 10 chronically low-performing campuses don't improve this year. If those 10 schools receive "not rated" scores, "that essentially gives the district an extra year, a mulligan, as it were," Morath said.

Morath also updated legislators on the TEA's estimates for the state's share of costs related to Harvey, which now stand "in the neighborhood of $1 billion to $2 billion," he said.

The total includes an estimated $400 million in costs associated with maintaining funding for districts that lost students displaced by the storm, as well as an estimated $800 million in lost property tax revenue over the next two years.

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