In March 2020, schools across Texas and the nation had to quickly adapt to a new way of delivering instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and students were suddenly having to navigate learning in a virtual environment, and the adjustment proved to be challenging. Parents had to take on the role of educational facilitators for their children, while many also struggled to balance their work schedules. Student productivity was affected by these changes.
State assessments came into focus during that same transitional time. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the decision to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness program for the remainder of that year due to the effects of the pandemic, and A-F accountability ratings for schools were also paused by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) during that year.
A year later in spring 2021, students were given the option of taking the STAAR. There was a state participation rate of 87% compared to 96% in 2019. The TEA released results that showed a decrease in academic performance and found that the negative impact of the pandemic erased years of improvement in reading and math. Preliminary results showed that students who met their grade level had dropped from 47% in 2019 to 43% in 2021 in reading and from 50% to 35% in math in grades third through eighth.
Some education leaders remain optimistic that the return to in-person learning will benefit students and help improve scores.
In spring 2020, many Texas colleges and universities also waived the ACT and SAT entrance exam requirements, and some made the tests optional through fall 2022 due to continued limited access to testing opportunities for students. Many testing sites closed due to their inability to meet social distancing requirements. As a result, many testing dates were canceled.
According to its website, the University of Texas at Austin is implementing a more individualized holistic approach to admissions now and will use criteria such as school transcripts, essay prompts, and letters of recommendation for consideration.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has also made SAT and ACT submission optional this year, according to information on its website, and is implementing criteria such as class rank, prior college hours, community involvement, leadership experience, and career goals as part of its admissions process.
Christina Hernandez, principal at Gonzalez Elementary School in McAllen, says that teachers and staff have been working hard to make sure all students are making academic progress and are prepared for state tests, but it will take time to address the learning gaps that occurred with some of the students.
“In some cases, we do expect to see the effects of the pandemic when the scores are released,” she said. “Students lost almost two years, and it is going to have an impact.”
For example, some fifth-graders at the school have never taken the STAAR, as they were in third grade when the pandemic first forced schools to close.
“The test was not administered then, and in the spring of 2021, it was optional,” Hernandez said. “There are some students that don’t even know what the STAAR looks like, and they will need to be exposed to all the content and material that was lost during the last year and a half — and to the format of the test itself.”
The beginning of virtual learning was challenging. Teachers had to learn new technology overnight, and it was stressful and time-consuming. Sometimes, there were problems with Wi-Fi connectivity, or students could not log in to certain apps or programs. Staff was made available to help parents and students solve problems that arose.
There were also issues with motivating some of the students to attend classes daily. Teachers worked with the parents, and students got better about logging in and participating in the lessons.
Hernandez applauds her team’s efforts during this time. They adapted to all the changes, and it has made them much stronger.
“Students in McAllen were very fortunate to have been provided the tools they needed to do virtual learning,” she said. “The district immediately rolled out iPads to the students that did not have a device at home, and hotspots were provided to families that did not have internet service to ensure that every student had access.
With the use of engaging apps, teachers and district coordinators held students’ attention. Assessments at the beginning of the school year showed that these efforts may have paid off.
“There are students that are doing very well, and we anticipate that they will continue to do well,” Hernandez said. “We have given two six-weeks assessments, and they continue to grow.”
Some students, however, may need additional help, including those who are new to the district and those who came from out of state. Gaps in their learning will need to be filled with accelerated instruction as well as tutoring and other interventions. Some of the same issues will likely apply to middle school and high school students when they take the STAAR this coming year. Teachers are working to ensure that the students are getting their needs met.
“Our district was rated A, which tells you that schools in McAllen did a phenomenal job,” Hernandez said. “Gonzalez Elementary was also rated A. Of course, we are hoping that we will maintain it, but I am being extremely cautious about that because of all the learning that has been lost. We are certainly aiming toward that A. I think eventually, in a year or two, we will get back to where we were pre-pandemic.”
Time will tell. Students from third grade through high school will participate in the STAAR this spring, and results may be released toward the end of the school year.