As school year wraps up, Alvin, Pearland, Friendswood and Clear Creek ISDs evaluate COVID-19 measures

As the school year comes to an end, officials from area school districts are reflecting on the year, navigating STAAR tests and planning ahead for the 2021-22 school year. (Photo courtesy Adobe Stock; Graphics by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)
As the school year comes to an end, officials from area school districts are reflecting on the year, navigating STAAR tests and planning ahead for the 2021-22 school year. (Photo courtesy Adobe Stock; Graphics by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)

As the school year comes to an end, officials from area school districts are reflecting on the year, navigating STAAR tests and planning ahead for the 2021-22 school year. (Photo courtesy Adobe Stock; Graphics by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)

As the 2020-21 school year, with all its COVID-19-related hurdles, nears its end, school districts are facing a new challenge: administering the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

The STAAR will be the first data set that accurately measures any learning loss sustained over the 2020-21 school year, said Nyla Watson, Pearland ISD chief academic officer.

“Our normal evaluation has been interrupted because we know kids are sharing information,” Watson said. “The STAAR test will be the only clean data for the year.”

Seeing how far students are behind is critical, PISD Superintendent John Kelly said at the district’s March 9 meeting, as it will give an idea of what needs to be corrected for the 2021-22 school year.

“We want as many students to test as possible because we want to know how many kids are far behind as we prepare for the next year,” Kelly said. “For parents, it’s a good test for you to learn how much your child has learned.”

However, not all area districts have so much faith in the STAAR.

Officials from Friendswood ISD and Clear Creek ISD have indicated the belief that it is more important for teachers and students to focus on curriculum than to worry about the state assessment. As COVID-19 and freak storms have interrupted learning throughout the year, officials said their administrators are now more concerned with using the small remainder of the year on instruction.

“STAAR preparation has never been a focus or something that [FISD Superintendent Thad Roher] has [promoted],” said Stacy Guzzetta, FISD executive director of student operations.

Potential learning loss

Remote students who are uncomfortable with coming to school for the STAAR are not required to do so, the Texas Education Agency announced. However, PISD and Alvin ISD are encouraging all students to come in and take the test, as high school students will need STAAR scores in core classes to graduate.

PISD will require students who are not taking the STAAR to work from home on STAAR testing days to ease the bandwidth on the district’s technology. The district will also be able to maintain safe distances between testing children.

AISD leaders are not concerned about having more children on campus to take the test, said Brent Shaw, AISD chief of accountability and assessment. The main hurdle the district has faced has been ensuring thatremote and in-person students are separated as they take the test.

“Each campus is planning, preparing and implementing safety procedures,” Shaw said.

FISD and CCISD leaders said they have less concern about encouraging students to take the STAAR, noting that it was a relief last year not to have to administer the exam after the TEA waived it due to the pandemic.

In the past, the TEA measured districts on a performance metric called Closing the Gaps, which referred to how well districts aided students who had socioeconomic differences or learning challenges. Students of color are often at a greater risk of learning loss as a result of having less access to resources than their white peers, said Robert Long, regional director for advocacy and research at the statewide education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas.

“All those imprints become a barrier for students, and when they come to school, ... we have to pour in more resources, just in normal, everyday [ways], to make sure we can bring these kids to a point to where they can leave and really live [successful] lives on their own,” he said.

According to 2019-20 school year data, 49.2% of AISD students are economically disadvantaged, as are 28% of CCISD students, 11.2% of FISD students and 30.9% of PISD students. In all four districts, some learning loss is likely to have taken place over the year, officials said.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said he is an advocate for reopening schools because he believes virtual learning is not a long-term solution for students.

“Eventually, we’re going to have what I call a 'snap-back problem' because ... by August, [I believe] we’re going to have a fully normalized school year,” he said. “That means there’s going to be a lot of catch-up learning that needs to be done.”

Comparing failure rates

As the year has progressed, PISD has been tracking student failure rates, which have not been significantly worse than those of past years, Watson said.

PISD reported a failure rate of 2% for elementary school students in fall 2020, a decrease from the 2019-20 rate of 4%. Watson attributed the decreased failure rate to elementary students’ parents being more involved in their children’s learning.

For students in grades 5-12, the failure rate during the 2019-20 school year was 8% as compared to 11% for the 2020-21 school year. In PISD as well as statewide and nationwide, high school students are failing classes at higher rates.

“High school kids notoriously fail at a higher rate because they pass by class, not grade level,” Watson said.

FISD has seen failure rates grow as well—mostly, from remote students struggling. As of November, 29% of remote students in the district were failing one or more classes as compared to 8.5% of in-person students.

Teachers are collaborating to determine what students have learned in one grade and what they might have brushed over so that higher-grade teachers can better prepare for incoming classes, Guzzetta said.

Failure rates in CCISD have grown from 16% at the high school level in the 2019-20 school year up to 21% as of spring 2021. District officials have noticed decreased performance in math and reading in lower grades, said Steven Ebell, CCISD deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

The remote nature of the school year has made it harder to catch failing students earlier, Watson said.

“It’s harder to catch up with the kids if they’re not face-to-face. If the child is at home, the attention to detail is not there, usually,” Watson said.

The TEA has suggested the implementation summer learning to make up for increased failure rates and learning loss, but some teachers and students are simply ready to be done.

“People are tired and ready for the school year to end,” Guzzetta said.

Coming next

Officials across districts are looking at practices that went well this year as well as practices they want to correct.

“Some kids have gotten complacent with the technology, and some kids are happy learning that way. How do we serve both levels of kids?” Watson said. “We want to figure out what a true blended classroom looks like.”

CCISD leaders said they recognize that online learning suits some, but not all students, and the district recently made a step toward recognizing that difference: Pending state funding, CCISD plans to launch a fully online academy known as Clear Connections Virtual School for the 2021-22 school year. At the academy, staffed with teachers focused solely on online instruction, remote and in-person students alike would get the attention they need, and educators would not have to split their time and resources between the two groups, Ebell said.

“That has been an incredible challenge, to manage both environments,” Ebell said.

In FISD, the school board has pushed for the district administration to encourage more students, especially struggling ones, to return to in-person instruction, which has resulted in 94% of students learning on campus as of March.

The move is paying off, said Dayna Owens, FISD director of communications and public relations.

For those learning remotely, FISD teachers have made adjustments to their teaching models based on focus groups’ input to reduce the stress of trying to teach in person and online simultaneously, Guzzetta said.

Like CCISD, PISD plans on having some teachers solely teaching remote students and others solely teaching in-person students next year, Kelly said at the March 9 board meeting.

“We are just trying to figure it out,” Watson said. “I have been in the district all my life. Teachers have never worked harder than they have this year.”

Danica Lloyd contributed to this report.
By Haley Morrison
Haley Morrison came to Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after graduating from Baylor University. She was promoted to editor in February 2019. Haley primarily covers city government.
By Jake Magee

Editor, Bay Area & Pearland/Friendswood

Jake has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper. Today, he covers everything from aerospace to transportation to flood mitigation.