In a significant victory for educators and students in Hurricane Harvey-impacted school districts, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Dec. 14 that he would seek a federal accountability waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to ensure the state has maximum flexibility as accountability decisions are made. TCTA and others had expressed concerns about whether student test results from hurricane-impacted schools would accurately represent students’ knowledge or ability, given the significant trauma and displacement many of them had experienced.

Since state accountability ratings are still heavily reliant on student test performance, TCTA and other educators urged Morath to give hurricane-impacted schools/districts a “Not Rated” accountability rating for the 2017-18 school year, much as a former commissioner had done in 2006 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A Dec. 14 TEA announcement about storm-related waivers said that "TEA may not be providing state accountability ratings for certain campuses in the impacted regions; however, we will continue to identify all campuses in the state as comprehensive and/or targeted as outlined in our ESSA State Plan.”

The testing schedule will not change, but Morath also announced he would relax requirements for fifth- and eighth-graders in storm-affected areas. While those students must normally pass the STAAR math and reading exams to be promoted to the next grade level, the commissioner granted leeway this year, making a third test administration optional and allowing local discretion on whether a student who fails the exams should advance.

Morath’s decision followed a Dec. 11 letter from Gov. Greg Abbott urging Morath to seek a federal accountability waiver and to relax the STAAR requirements for fifth- and eighth-graders in the 47 counties declared federal disaster areas following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in late August.

Abbott’s letter came on the heels of TCTA’s Dec. 4 letter to the House Public Education Committee informing them of TCTA’s discovery of documentation that federal accountability waivers previously had been granted to Texas for schools impacted by natural disasters, and urging them to direct Morath to seek such a waiver from USDE. TCTA sent the letter after testifying for accountability relief at a Nov. 14 interim hearing of the House Public Education Committee, during which the ability to/precedent for receiving federal accountability waivers was questioned by Morath. TCTA’s letter pointed to a Congressional Research Service report listing disaster-related federal waivers granted during 2005-2009, including two accountability waivers received by Texas in 2006, the same year that the then-commissioner issued "Not Rated" ratings to hurricane-impacted schools/districts.

Simultaneously, TCTA contacted Sen. John Cornyn’s office to let them know of the precedent for Texas receiving federal accountability waivers and the urgency of seeking one given real concerns about whether student test results from hurricane-impacted districts/schools would be accurate. 

During the Nov. 14 House committee hearing, Morath told lawmakers that he did not have authority under state law to waive state testing requirements, although he might have authority to address requirements that fifth- and eighth-graders must pass the STAAR test in order to advance to the next grade. With regard to accountability, he testified that he had more flexibility and that final accountability decisions/rules factoring in student/staff displacement and instructional environment disruption would be made in the spring. But when asked whether Texas could request a waiver from federal accountability requirements, Morath stated that there was no precedent for that to his knowledge nor did he think one would likely be granted.

Now, with the information that there is precedent for Texas receiving a federal accountability waiver, and pressure from state leaders, TCTA and others, Morath plans to take the next step and apply for a waiver. TCTA will continue to monitor and report on further developments as they occur.