While schools across Texas experimented heavily with virtual learning in the last school year, state law barely acknowledges it. Aside from the Texas Virtual School Network, which serves about 30,000 of the state’s 5.3 million public students, virtual learning in Texas has been wandering outside the edges of the map.
If SB 15 passes, it will officially carve a path for regular districts and charter schools to create virtual classes and programs that students can attend full-time.
Schools, students, and teachers must meet certain requirements to participate.
Districts can only create virtual learning programs if they earned a C or higher on their last overall performance rating, a grade that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) gives to schools to measure student achievement. Currently, each campus gets an A-F grade, adding up to an overall rating for the traditional district or charter.
If SB 15 were implemented, virtual learning programs would also receive their own grades as if they were distinct campuses in their districts.
Students must already be enrolled in public school to attend remotely under the bill. They must also have “reasonable access to in-person services for the course” and meet the minimum academic threshold set by the district. No more than 10 percent of the student body at a given district may enroll in virtual learning.
Teachers can only teach virtual courses once they’ve completed training on remote instruction. Schools cannot compel teachers to teach virtual courses.
Under the bill, parents reserve ultimate control over whether or not their children take virtual learning.
On the budget side, schools will still have to pay for the maintenance of virtual learning as they did this year. The bill only commits to including virtual learners in the calculations of how much money schools get from the state.
In technical terms, traditional districts and charters get state funding per student based on average daily attendance (ADA). SB 15 would count virtual attendance as part of average daily attendance, but since the bill would only let students take virtual learning if they are already enrolled, the fiscal analysis does not anticipate a major difference in the state budget.
To prevent schools from using virtual programs to reap ADA funding without helping students, state Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney) added an amendment. It stipulates that districts cannot count students in ADA if they failed core classes taken virtually last year, missed more than a tenth of the year, or failed the state’s standardized test — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).
Virtual programs must include tested courses or grade levels.
During the bill’s House committee hearing, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said virtual learning produced disastrous results last year.
“The state lost essentially a decade’s worth of gain in mathematics proficiency in students during the pandemic so far,” Morath said.
“Elementary school reading proficiency is actually the worst it’s ever been since the dawn of the STAAR test.”
However, he cautioned legislators against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“Remote instruction clearly does work for some students,” Morath said. “I don’t think this should be lost on policymakers.”
According to Morath, districts that mostly had classes in person saw very little decline in reading proficiency and a 9 percent decline in math proficiency. By contrast, districts that had under 25 percent of their students in real classrooms underwent a “pretty stark” drop: a 31% proficiency decline in math and a seven percent decline in reading.
Overall, STAAR scores took a nosedive last year. English, which has long been the state’s lowest-scoring subject, was the only subject to see a rise in average scores at the high school level. High school STAAR scores dropped the most in algebra.
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