By Robbie Owens

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – The COVID-19 pandemic won’t put a pause on standardized testing this year.

STAAR testing begins next week in school districts across the state, but with big changes.

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Still, the perspective in Jennifer Patterson Gregory’s household remains the same.

“I tell them, ‘don’t worry about it. It’s just a test’,” says Gregory, an Arlington mom to a blended family of five. “Don’t freak out about it.”

Still, hers is a fresh perspective: she can see the benefits.

“I understand the necessity of standardized testing with public education because you need a baseline foundation to understand that the teachers are teaching what they’re supposed to in each curriculum level and subject matter,” says Gregory.

“So, I understand it, it’s a necessary evil. I disagree with them putting so much pressure on this one test with these students.”

And for the moment, the STAAR performance pressure has been put on pause.

This year, neither individual campuses nor districts will receive those A-F letter grades.

Students in grades 5 and 8 will not be held back, based on the results.

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With those performance consequences removed, and the accompanying stress, local school leaders say they’re taking advantage of the opportunity to approach the STAAR as a diagnostic tool, helping identify the students most severely impacted academically during the pandemic and providing insight on what’s needed to help them catch up.

“We really are focusing on STAAR as an opportunity to understand where students are at,” says Shannon Trejo, Dallas ISD’s Chief Academic Officer, “figure out where they were the last time that we took the STAAR, compare that to this administration of the STAAR, and then use that information to help us plan for small group instruction, select professional learning for our teachers, select instructional materials that are going to be appropriate to build those instructional gaps that students have.”

Still, Trejo is adamant that the district is already working on a robust plan to meet student needs.

“It’s not a learning gap, it’s an instructional gap. Students just haven’t had an opportunity to receive the instruction they need to demonstrate success.”

The state is also requiring that all of those STAAR exams be administered on campus, even for remote learners. The mandate presents a health and safety challenge for schools. Trejo says they are ready.

“The good news is we’ve actually had quite a bit of practice at supporting remote learners and returning to the campus for intermittent periods of time to participate in face-to-face instruction,” explains Trejo. “Face masks were worn and students were distributed among the building to make sure that we were able to keep everyone safe and healthy.”

Trejo says parents with concerns should contact their campus staff, as it is critical for students to take the STAAR to help educators chart academic next steps.

“So I do think it’s important that we recognize the benefits of not having the stress of state accountability and just focusing on meeting student needs,” says Trejo.

And the former educator and mom agrees and believes the pressure for students and teachers should be put on pause, permanently.

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“It’s such a hard time. Everybody trying to do the best they can and feeling like they’re failing, no matter what they’re doing,” says Gregory. “We as a community could do nothing greater for our teachers than to show them grace and forgiveness and Agape love through all of this, because they are just giving so much of themselves, to try to provide the best education they can for the students.”