As Texas teachers call out sick, student outcomes could suffer. What can districts do?

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With teachers and students missing days and in some cases weeks of class for another school year due to the ongoing pandemic, educators and at least one lawmaker are worried about how academic outcomes will suffer as a result.

Fort Worth ISD is pulling out all the stops to prevent classrooms from closing by calling in administrators and having librarians and other staff cover classes as teachers call out sick with COVID-19.

But researchers say without teachers regularly in the classroom, districts will have a harder time providing the targeted and accelerated instruction needed to catch students up after years of learning loss.

David Steiner, the executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at John Hopkins University, said that at-risk children who faced greater obstacles to learning throughout the pandemic continue to suffer amid this current staffing shortage.

Steiner has said for the past year that teachers need to accelerate learning by focusing on essential knowledge that students need to know.

“If we try to remediate, that is teach the kids everything they haven’t been able to learn because of what happened. We’ll never get there,” he said. “And we will depress the children because they’ll know that we’re going backwards. We have to draw a line in the sand and say, look, what must they know if they’re going to catch up to their grade level? Not everything … we’re going to have to choose the most important elements.”

That process, along with high-dosage tutoring and extra learning outside of the classroom has been mandated by lawmakers, and embraced by Fort Worth ISD over the last year. But in order to meet those standards, districts have to have the staff to provide interventions.

“When you add staffing problems to teachers who are out sick, you have unbelievable situations in which everybody is trying to pitch in, your principals are teaching kindergarten and you have folks brought in from all manner of places, often with emergency credentials,” Steiner said. “And they’re put in front of children and of course, that further exacerbates the learning problems. So we have a kind of tragic, perfect storm here for our underprivileged children.”

With the compounding effect of the ongoing disasters, Texas State Sen. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, is calling on the Texas Education Agency to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test, which is used to give school districts accountability rankings.

State senator calls on TEA to cancel STAAR Testing

In a letter addressed to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Menendez cited the staffing shortages as well as “mental health emergencies” for both students and teachers.

“As this catastrophe continues, these students are still expected to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test over the next few months, with scores that could potentially harm both the student and the school,” Menendez said. “Given the dire circumstances currently facing our education system, I am requesting you take all necessary action to cancel the administration of the STAAR test for the current academic year.”

But experts, including Steiner, caution against canceling standardized testing in anticipation of poor results.

“You have got to be careful, because if you throw away all your measurements, you’re guesstimating where your kids are,” Steiner said. “Just because it is bad news, doesn’t mean it is useless. We need to know what the problems are, and what we’re facing.”

Last year in Fort Worth and across Texas, students lost substantial ground both in reading and in math, according to the results of the STAAR. In the Fort Worth school district, fewer students in all grade levels 3-8 met or approached grade level in reading or math in the spring of 2021 compared to the spring of 2019, according to the report.

While districts have received no ratings for the last year due to the pandemic, they will again receive a letter grade in 2022 — but cannot be given a D or an F grade.

Under new legislation, only A, B, C and “Not Rated” labels can be used for campuses and districts.

Accountability ratings and STAAR results have been tied in the past to teacher evaluations and in turn, compensation.

Steiner, the education expert, said that tests can be administered without accountability rankings in order to gauge where students are.

Menendez said that should be the case, since the accountability structure is nullified by the staffing crisis.

“There’s got to be some accountability, fine,” he told the Star-Telegram. “But accountability for who? The substitute? The coach that you put (students with) in the gym?”

Menendez said that he has been sent photos of full classes taking place in the gym in order to be able to fit with one teacher.

The Texas Education Agency did not respond to a request for comment on whether the events so far this year would impact the administration of STAAR.

Staffing shortages impacting schools across Texas

The staffing and academic concerns are reflected in school districts and charter schools across the state, including Founders Classical Academy, a charter school.

Wendi Johnson, who has two kids that attend the school, said she would be in support of the test being canceled given the ongoing disruption.

“I would be in support of the STAAR testing … being canceled this year, as a parent, because of all the disruptions and what the last year and a half has looked like,” she said. “The virtual school, the in and out, the quarantine, the subs, you know, like all of those components, have significantly impacted the educational development of my kids and of every kid.”

“So having that as the history leading into these big high-stakes testing, I think it would be very important to give grace and the understanding that our kids are not where they need to be,” she added.

Johnson, who is an associate professor of psychology at Texas Woman’s University, said that the effects of the pandemic could also nullify the goal of the test, which is to measure whether or not students are on grade level.

“Are we really answering the question of (has) this child met reading levels of third grade or whatever it is?,” she asked. “Well, I don’t think we can say that. I don’t think the STAAR is answering the question that it’s intended to, given the situation that our education system has been in.”

But many districts, including Fort Worth ISD, have continued to measure their students’ progress through other assessments, like the MAP test, which measures progress against national standards.

Students showing some academic growth despite constant disruptions

Miranda Quintero, a librarian at Sagamore Hill Elementary who proctored the tests and regularly stays in contact with teachers, said that despite the constant interruptions over the last several years, students are still improving.

“I think that the kids are resilient and are pushing through, and they are learning,” Quintero said. “They are making strides and gains, and that’s evident through the various platforms that we’re using to assess the students.”

But it is too soon, Quintero and Steiner both said, to expect students to perform on grade level as they would before the COVID pandemic.

“I don’t think we can hold ourselves accountable to what a student could do in fifth grade three years ago,” Quintero said. “It’s very difficult, because I think the expectation is that you’re in fifth grade, you should know this, and this, and this – fifth grade isn’t the same thing it was three years ago.”

Districts can still hone in on basic skills, however, and be selective about how to teach students moving forward.

“We cannot do the impossible,” Steiner said. “If you’ve got a quarter of your staff out, you can’t organize properly to do what I’m talking about. What you need to do is really narrow further and say, look, what are we going to try to teach as a teaching community?”

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