Texas school districts are “relatively close” to having the tools they need to start giving state standardized tests online to nearly all students by 2022-23, according to a study published by the Texas Education Agency.
The analysis, conducted by TEA and Texas A&M University officials, found recent technological developments — including the purchase of 2.5 million computer devices amid the COVID-19 pandemic — have better positioned Texas to join the 70 percent of states that already administer their standardized tests virtually. Under a law passed in 2019 by state legislators, TEA officials must create plans for moving their exams online by 2022-23.
“In reviewing the intelligence gathered through this study … and other relevant sources of information regarding currently available funding, it is estimated that the state of Texas is relatively close to having the infrastructure necessary, on top of its years of experience, to administer all assessments electronically by 2022-23,” the study authors wrote.
A strong majority of school district leaders support the switch, though some opposition remains, according to surveys conducted by state officials. Many education officials also worry about technological hurdles and how the move to online exams will impact student performance.
Each year, nearly all of Texas’ 4 million public school students in grades 3 and up take some form of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly known as STAAR. The results are a major factor in calculating state-issued accountability ratings, deciding if students should be promoted to middle and high school, and determining whether high school seniors should receive a diploma.
In 2018-19, the most recent year that STAAR was administered, about 13 percent of exams were taken online, with the remainder given on paper. Most students who answered questions online required testing accommodations, often due to learning disabilities, the study’s authors reported.
However, most states have shifted to online exams in recent years as a way to lower costs, increase test security and produce faster results.
In 2019, the Texas Legislature passed several changes to the state’s standardized testing protocols, including provisions that put it on track to host nearly all exams online by 2022-23. TEA officials said some students requiring accommodations will be able to take tests on paper, if needed.
About 68 percent of 780 school district administrators surveyed by the TEA in spring 2020 said they believe the advantages of shifting STAAR online outweigh the drawbacks. The responses came before districts across Texas spent more than $900 million on computers and wireless Internet hotspots through the state’s COVID-19 Operation Connectivity initiative, largely reducing concerns about hardware availability.
“This present momentum could be helpful as schools prepare to transition to 100 percent online STAAR in the coming years,” the study’s authors wrote.
Still, about three-quarters of respondents said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that multiple challenges remain: backup protocols; a lack of resources; students struggling with taking tests online; the increased technology burden; and coordinating testing and technology support.
In their 137-page report, state education leaders warned that a small number of school districts still need to upgrade their Internet connectivity and hire more staff to address technology needs before exams shift online.
TEA officials estimated those costs will represent a miniscule fraction of the state’s education budget, though the price tag could be burdensome for smaller and more rural districts if they do not receive state or federal help.
The study’s authors also noted three instances of technological issues during online STAAR tests in recent years.
In 2016, about 14,200 students saw their answers erased in the middle of an exam, a glitch that Education Commissioner Mike Morath called “unacceptable.” In 2018, about 41,700 students were affected by online login troubles during the April exam window and 29,300 students struggled with connectivity or were kicked out of testing software during May exams, according to the study authors.
Texas legislators mandated in 2019 that the TEA begin developing a transition plan for moving STAAR online by September — though lawmakers could tweak testing requirements during the legislative session that starts next week.
TEA officials still plan to administer STAAR this spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but districts and schools will not receive state-issued accountability ratings.
State leaders have not waived laws related to requirements that students take the exams, but Gov. Greg Abbott has said students in grades 3 through 8 — including those enrolled in online-only classes — will not be held back or otherwise punished if they skip the tests. Abbott has not waived laws requiring high school students to pass STAAR end-of-course exams before graduating.