AUSTIN (KXAN) — The state of Texas has submitted a plan that would move the STAAR tests exclusively online by 2022.
In the “State of Texas Transition to Online Assessments Feasibility Study,” the Texas Education Agency says a transition to an online format has a number of benefits including offering quicker results for teachers to strategize for the next academic year, preparing students for future endeavors and decreasing the possibility of cheating.
“Educational organizations, researchers, and policy-makers have increasingly recognized the need for policies and practices that support the development of 21st century skills for all students,” the report reads.
A spring 2020 statewide survey showed more than 60% of responding districts had adequate bandwidth to perform the testing electronically.
That includes districts like Lockhart Independent School District, who have spent the past four years investing around $2.5 million on major technological improvements.
Dr. Stephaine Camarillo, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said around 75% of families in the district are economically disadvantaged. So the school board committed to investing in updated towers, cabling, routers and other infrastructure improvements.
“It was a gamechanger for us,” Camarillo said.
Since implementing these changes and ensuring a 1:1 student to device ratio, the district has performed frequent “checkpoint” testing, which allows students to acclimate to taking exams electronically. Camarillo said having this practice will be helpful for when the STAAR moves online.
Districts that aren’t prepared with the necessary tools will have to incur a one-time investment of up to $4 million on network infrastructure paired with annual expenses around $13 million for additional bandwidth and personnel-related costs, the report says.
That could be tough for smaller, more rural districts facing declining enrollment and budget shortfalls.
“We’ve all incurred expenses that we had no way of knowing going into this past school year that are affecting us now and will continue affecting us for years to come,” Camarillo said.
The report shares a number of suggestions lawmakers may consider to help put the plan into action and help districts manage the cost. That includes repurposing TIMA funds, used primarily for learning materials, to help districts strategically use their allotment. Also the legislature can consider developing a “matching grant fund” to help districts with one-time network infrastructure investments.
“The school districts we talk to are very concerned about how much money they could potentially lose because of their enrollment numbers,” said Jennifer Saenz, the Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives and Continuous Improvement for the E3 Alliance. “If we don’t put in place a funding stream that supports our schools to implement these kinds of changes for the future, it’s going to be a struggle.”
Saenz says the other big investment must be in the teachers. Along with the technological improvements, additional professional development will help ensure students not only grasp the material, but learn how to test online.
She said that is part of the reason Texas school districts have experienced record levels of failing students who are struggling with remote learning.
“We did not give our teachers the proper professional learning and development to be able to understand what does it mean to learn in an online environment,” Saenz said. “We really have to think this through and think about what type of professional learning and development do our teachers need to know how to engage students in an online platform, and prepare them for taking an online assessment.”
Lawmakers will still need to act during this legislative session for this plan to move forward. Sanez said the joint education committees will work through the details and discuss it with the finance committees. The state legislature will then have to clarify the scope of the requirements and confirm the 2022-2023 deadline.
Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at email@example.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.