EL PASO, Texas -- Parents, in the Borderland and across Texas, of elementary and middle schoolers in virtual learning who don't want their children sitting for in-person standardized tests this school year have a simple option: They can keep their kids home with no ill effect.
But for some high schoolers, whose test results still determine whether they graduate, there may be no way to get around showing up for testing sessions in person.
The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR exams, are slated to take place next week in the El Paso and Ysleta independent school districts in the Borderland.
State education officials shave aid all public school students are required to take STAAR exams, in person at a monitored test site. But millions of Texas students have been learning from home during the pandemic, and school districts have few tools in hand to force those worried about risking their health to show up for the tests.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath recently told the Texas Tribune that it’s logistically impossible to allow children to take the exams remotely, but parents of remote learners who don’t believe in-person testing is safe can keep their children home.
Federal and state law mandate that students in grades three through 12 take the STAAR exams, and in some cases how they do determines if they graduate or move up to the next grade. Texas has said fifth and eighth grade students who don’t pass required STAAR exams this year may still move up to the next grades. But high school students must pass five subject-specific courses by the time they graduate, a requirement that will not be waived this year.
State education leaders and school superintendents anticipate that more students than in past years will opt out of taking the tests this time, unwilling to show up in person. That will be easier for students in lower grades than those in high school, who will be giving up an opportunity to take a required test.
But EPISD officials stressed to ABC-7 on Friday that the exams are important to judge how the pandemic has impacted students’ education and help remediate shortfalls.
"So the scores themselves are not going to count against their grades or their promotion but it will really help us determine the need, the intervention, the support that that student may need and overall as a district may need," said EPISD spokesperson Melissa Martinez.
Public opinion among parents in the Borderland, and across the state, is divided.
Bruce Thompson, a father of an EPISD sophomore, said he supports returning to the classroom both for the exams and for all schooling going forward.
"I think bringing the students back to school overall is a wonderful idea. I think they need to be back in class full time. I think that is really important right now," he told ABC-7 on Friday.
He added, "I think all the districts have seen the impact on the students as far as their passing grades and stuff like that. They have dropped considerably."
Experts have said school districts in areas with low levels of transmission that take reasonable precautions should be able to educate students safely.
Recent state guidance also gave school districts additional flexibility on testing conditions so they can safely administer the STAAR, including more testing days.
In normal years, the state of Texas uses the test scores to rate schools and districts on a scale from A through F. This year, as the pandemic has severely impacted the quality of education many students are receiving, Texas said it would not rate schools and districts. But unlike states like New York and Michigan, Texas didn't seek a federal waiver to cancel the tests.