Beto O’Rourke wants to end the STAAR tests. Here’s why he can’t.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto ORourke speaks at a rally in Austin on Sept. 6, 2022. ORourke has said he wants to end the states annual standardized tests. Federal law wouldnt allow that. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Beto O’Rourke’s vows to cancel the STAAR test are untenable since state and federal law preclude him from eliminating the standardized testing program on his own.

In appeals to students, teachers and education activists, O’Rourke — the Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate — has repeatedly promised to do away with the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness if he’s elected governor in November. O’Rourke considers the standardized tests a waste of valuable teaching time and a drain on state education funds, a claim that many education advocates have made for years.

“You told me that these high-stakes, high-pressure standardized tests in no way effectively measure the potential of that child or the effort that you are expending on her behalf,” O’Rourke said during a campaign rally held at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches this week. “So when we win we’re going to cancel the STAAR test in the state of Texas.”

But at least some of the tests are federally required. The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by former President Barack Obama, also a Democrat, requires states to administer annual tests in reading and math in the third through eighth grades and once in high school.

[Gov. Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke accused each other of misinforming Texans during their debate. Here are the facts.]

Supporters of standardized tests say the exams provide teachers with valuable information on student progress and increase transparency for families. The modern national requirement for the standardized testing system was first put in place by former President George W. Bush when he signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.

However, standardized testing has long faced backlash from advocacy organizations and teachers, who say the high stakes put undue pressure on students and teachers and distract from a school’s purpose.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson Clay Robison said in an email. “Standardized testing in public schools should be used for diagnostic purposes, not for keeping score and accountability reasons.”

Texas goes beyond the federal requirements by requiring students to take a science test and a social studies test in eighth grade. High school students take subject-specific tests at the end of the year, and the state ties the test results to accountability scores.

But to eliminate these state requirements, O’Rourke would need support from the Legislature.

“I’d love for Beto to make this a real centerpiece because I think we’re ready to make a shift in the state of Texas,” said Angela Valenzuela, a professor in education policy at the University of Texas at Austin. While he can support current efforts to eliminate the extra state requirements, “He can’t get rid of the federally required tests.”

O’Rourke’s campaign team clarified in a Thursday email that even though O’Rourke cannot singlehandedly get rid of the test, he’d align the state with federal requirements and remove high-stakes consequences.

“There is nothing in federal law that requires states to use test results punitively toward students,” said Beto for Texas spokesperson Tori Larned. “While standardized tests serve as critical measures to identify student learning gaps and inform classroom instruction, they should never be the only tools used for grade advancement or high school graduation.”

Larned added that O’Rourke would require an independent evaluation of the validity, readability and instructional sensitivity of the STAAR test to guarantee its fairness.

Historically, students in Texas have had to pass the reading and math tests to advance to sixth or ninth grade, and high school students have had to pass their tests to graduate. The Texas Education Agency also uses the test results to generate grades, from A through F, for each school. Schools that receive “D” or “F” ratings can face sanctions, including state takeover.

Lawmakers eliminated the grade retention requirement during the last legislative session and required districts to offer tutoring to any student who doesn’t meet grade-level expectations.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education allowed states to apply to waive the tests due to the coronavirus pandemic, but states resumed testing in 2021.

Some lawmakers have called on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the state education department to cancel tests this year as well. State Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat, wrote in a January letter to the governor that the STAAR tests are “poorly designed” and “out of sync with learning standards.”

Abbott’s office referred questions about the exams to his campaign team. They did not immediately respond to questions about whether the governor agrees with O’Rourke on eliminating the test.

Texas is one of only 11 states in the nation that require high school exit exams for graduation.

Disclosure: Texas State Teachers Association and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.