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TEA announces its takeover intent

Here it comes.

In a move that is unprecedented in scope, Texas state officials announced Wednesday they plan on taking over the state’s largest school district, yanking power from Houston Independent School District’s elected school board members to “prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and Board President Diana Davila giving two principal reasons for the decision: the school board’s “failure of governance” and the repeated low academic performance of Wheatley High School, which received its seventh failing rating this year. In addition to appointing a board of governance to replace the elected school board, Morath will also appoint a superintendent to lead the district. The timeline of the takeover action is unclear.

“Given the inability of the board of trustees to govern the district, these sanctions are necessary to protect the best interests of the district’s current and future students,” he wrote. The decision means the state will be taking over its largest public school district, which contains more than 270 schools and educates more than 200,000 students.

Houston ISD officials still have a slim chance at averting the takeover and have two weeks to request a formal review challenging it, according to a Texas Education Agency spokesperson.

[…]

During its temporary replacement of the elected board, a board of managers has all the same powers and duties to oversee the school district. Once the state determines it has fixed the specific problems it is charged with, Morath will gradually transfer power back to the elected board.

See here and here for the background. You can see Morath’s letter to HISD here. If for some reason you want to serve on that Board of Managers, the application is here. This decision came a day after the denial of the Wheatley appeal, which was not a surprise. There is the lawsuit filed by HISD to stop the TEA from taking over, which still feels like a longshot to me but which could slow things down. Be that as it may, you can see where this is going.

I’ll just say this much. Despite the problems the Board has had, HISD is overall a pretty good-performing school district. There are problems, of course, as there always are with large, diverse urban districts that serve a population that is mostly low-income and that has a large number of non-native English speakers. I won’t defend the current Board, though after Tuesday’s elections I’d argue it’s already improved, but I’m not at all convinced that the TEA can do a better job with academic performance at schools like Wheatley than the Board has done. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that – I hope all of the schools improve while the TEA is in charge – but if I’m right, I don’t know what there is to be done about it. The Chron has more.

TEA recommends HISD takeover

Not finalized yet, but you can see the way it’s going to go.

The Texas Education Agency is recommending that the state take over Houston Independent School District — the state’s largest public school system — due to its elected school board’s “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern,” according to a 318-page final investigative report sent to lawmakers Wednesday.

TEA’s Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt found that school board members violated state open meetings law by discussing district business without notifying the public of their discussions, attempted to influence how contracts were awarded, and took action on district issues individually without consulting other board members. It substantiates most of the allegations made in a preliminary August report.

District officials and board members, whose responses are included in the final report, dispute many of the agency’s conclusions and argued the allegations were not investigated properly. The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the report, which is public, late Wednesday. TEA officials confirmed that they had sent it to legislators.

Hewitt recommended Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district, replacing the elected school board.

[…]

Houston ISD received a B from the state this year, largely based on student test scores, but Wheatley High School failed in August for the seventh year in a row. The TEA is separately considering penalizing the district because of Wheatley’s repeated low performance.

The findings in the report are final and cannot be appealed. Morath will make the final determination on whether to replace Houston ISD’s board.

See here for the background. Remember that this is about the ethics investigation – this is the final version of the August report, which means this version was written after HISD had a chance to respond to the initial report, which also recommended a takeover. The accountability ratings issue is still pending, with the Wheatley rating being half-heartedly appealed, and that decision by Morath – a decision between replacing the Board and closing Wheatley, the latter of which everyone expects will not happen – is not due till early next year. I presume Morath has more discretion in this matter, but given that a takeover is basically inevitable at this point I’m not sure how much it matters. I suppose it may make a difference in terms of how long it may take HISD to get back in control of its own governance, and what it needs to do to get there, but in the short term it’s a distinction without much difference.

In the meantime, there’s this.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board have asked a federal judge to preemptively stop the Texas Education Agency from stripping power from the district’s elected trustees and allow board members to select a permanent superintendent, the latest maneuver in a growing legal battle between the district and state.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the HISD board’s lawyers argued agency officials have discriminated against voters in predominantly black and Hispanic cities, overstepped their authority in suspending the district’s superintendent search and misinterpreted a new state law that requires dramatic intervention in districts with long-struggling schools.

[…]

In their motion for a preliminary injunction, HISD’s lawyers said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is attempting to “unlawfully supplant the democratically-elected board of trustees” and replace it with a state-appointed governance team. The district’s lawyers noted that 10 districts subject to major state intervention in recent years all serve large majorities of black and Hispanic students, illustrating discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

“You could argue that it’s a coincidence. I think it’s not,” Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer for HISD trustees, said Wednesday.

In addition to discrimination claims, HISD’s lawyers argued that a state-appointed conservator overseeing the district’s operations of long-struggling Kashmere High School overstepped her legal authority in suspending HISD’s superintendent search last March. HISD has been without a permanent superintendent since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City’s public schools.

HISD’s lawyers claim the conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, only had the power to dictate matters related to Kashmere.

“Delaney was appointed to be a campus-level conservator over the performance of one of (HISD’s) schools, and was to implement and ensure compliance with getting the resources necessary to extract it from its low-performing status,” O’Hanlon said.

However, state law grants broad authority to conservators, including the ability to “direct an action to be taken” by a district’s board of trustees.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but let’s just say I have my doubts about the likelihood of success here. It’s worth a shot, but I wouldn’t go betting the rent on it. We’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes – would anyone be surprised if this is still in the courts when the TEA is handing power back to HISD? I don’t think it’s likely to go anywhere, but that’s just my guess at this time.

HISD’s appeal of the Wheatley rating

Not much there. You can read whatever you want into that.

If Houston ISD trustees expected the district’s administration to make an impassioned, detailed appeal to the state for an accountability reprieve at Wheatley High School — a last-ditch effort to avoid severe state sanctions tied to chronically low performance at the campus — they did not get it from Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Instead, Lathan submitted a two-page, bare-bones case for overturning Wheatley’s failing grade to the Texas Education Agency, infusing the request with none of the emotion that trustees displayed last month when they ordered her to file an appeal. Rather, Lathan briefly recounted the reasons trustees expressed for supporting an appeal — the lingering effects of Hurricane Harvey, some signs of progress at Wheatley, the impact of sanctions on a district — that her administration believes is doomed to fail.

“I think they could have stated a very strong position and documented evidence, for example, from renowned research on the long-term effects of an incident like Harvey,” said HISD Trustee Sergio Lira, who voted to order the appeal. “I think it could have been much stronger, and I’m disappointed.”

The disconnect over the depth of HISD’s Sept. 13th appeal, obtained through a public records request this week, illustrates yet another example of the frayed relationship between Lathan’s administration and a majority of the district’s school board, which have been engaged in a year-long standoff marked by distrust and differences of opinion.

[…]

In a statement Tuesday, HISD officials said the appeal “was submitted in good faith.”

“As such, the administration stands behind the submission and has no further comment,” the statement read.

TEA officials are expected to rule on HISD’s appeal by December.

See here for the background. On the one hand, as I understand it the data is pretty cut and dried, and there’s not much in there to be disputed. No one really thinks that this appeal has much chance of success, so no real point in doing valueless work. On the other hand, when your boss tells you to do something – and the Board is the boss of the Superintendent – you do it, and you do it in a way that meets your boss’ expectations. To do otherwise is somewhere between incompetence and insubordination.

I’m not in a position to say which is the more accurate description of the situation. But however you look at it, this isn’t how this is supposed to work.

The TEA delivers its terms to HISD

As expected.

The Texas Education Commissioner has put the state’s largest school district on official notice that it could lose its locally-elected school board because of failing grades at one Houston high school.

The commissioner, Mike Morath, notified Houston’s interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, and school board president, Diana Davila, that he may have to take action to appoint outside managers to oversee the district — or order the struggling school closed. The campus, the historically black Wheatley High School in Fifth Ward, recently had its seventh failing grade in a row.

“If the preliminary unacceptable academic performance rating assigned to Wheatley High School becomes a final rating, I will be required by TEC §39A.111 to order either campus closure or the appointment of a board managers and will notify the district of my specific decision in future correspondence,” Morath concluded in the letter.

Morath has not made a final decision and the failing grade remains preliminary until Sept. 15.

You can see the letter at the link. All signs point to the board of managers option being used, but the law does allow for the schools in question to be closed, so that got mentioned as well. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter tweeted that there was to be a discussion of appealing the Wheatley rating at yesterday’s public meeting, though it is very unlikely to succeed. There is still the lawsuit over the ethics investigation, but even if that were to succeed it would only reduce by half the number of justifications the TEA currently has for a takeover. I’m not sure what happens next, but something will happen by the 15th. The Press has more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the board has voted to appeal Wheatley’s rating.

We await HISD’s fate

I mean, I think we know what it’s going to be, but there are still some questions.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath came to and left the Greater Houston area Thursday without addressing one of the biggest issues on his agenda: the fate of Houston ISD’s school board.

In the coming weeks, Morath likely will be forced to decide whether to replace all trustees governing Texas’ largest school district or close one of HISD’s most historic campuses, the consequence of historic Wheatley High School failing to meet state academic standards for a seventh consecutive time. While Morath was in no mood to discuss the looming decision following the release of academic accountability ratings Thursday — he hurried out of an Aldine ISD school without answering questions or making a statement on HISD — a review of comments by the commissioner, his top deputies and state education leaders offers insight into the likely process.

Barring a successful appeal of Wheatley’s grade, which became public Thursday, Morath is widely expected to strip power from the nine HISD trustees and appoint a new board of managers comprised of Houston-area residents. The process likely would take multiple months to complete, with a replacement board seated sometime in early 2020.

“These are not going to be people that live in Austin,” Morath told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2018, when asked about the possibility of a state-appointed board taking control of HISD. “These are going to be well-qualified people that live in Houston that just didn’t want to run for school board before, but they wouldn’t mind being appointed.”

See here for the background, with the reminder that the Wheatley academic rating issue isn’t the only peril that the HISD Board faces. I was told by someone who teaches at Wheatley that their rating basically comes down to one student. The reason for this is that there are myriad sub-categories at each school that are also included in the accountability ratings, and not meeting standard in any one of them can cause the school to get an F even if the rest of their ratings were sufficient. It’s possible Wheatley could prevail in that appeal, and by all means they should pursue it, but as noted that would still not be the end of HISD’s troubles.

At this point it seems clear that the TEA will not close down Wheatley, which is the right call, so barring anything unexpected it’s all about how they go about replacing the Board. The Chron asks some good questions about how this may play out.

Intervention must be undertaken with respect and careful attention to community concerns. New board members must reflect the district’s diversity and its values. They must understand the communities they serve as well as grasp the importance of inclusion and best practices in their governance. The panel should include experienced educators, as well as candidates with financial expertise and civic involvement. There must be a clear plan for implementation, for measuring success — and a defined exit strategy.

Parents, educators, students and taxpayers, therefore, must step up to ask hard questions and demand that the state provide honest answers. How will members be chosen? What criteria will be used to ensure that state appointees prioritize the needs of HISD students? Will there be additional financial resources to help schools improve? Will a strong ethics policy be in place and enforced?

Above all, Morath and TEA must promise — and provide — transparency. Parents need to be confident that their children’s welfare is at the center of every decision, every discussion. Houston is done accepting any less.

As we know, and as both the story and the editorial state, the history of TEA intervention is mixed at best, so we better know going in what the goals are and what the path to achieving them is. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.

HISD misses on accountability ratings

There’s now a second reason for the TEA to step in and take over HISD.

Houston ISD moved a major step closer to temporarily losing local control over its school board Thursday, as long-awaited state academic accountability ratings showed one of the district’s longest-struggling campuses received its seventh consecutive failing grade, triggering a Texas law requiring harsh sanctions.

Barring a successful HISD appeal of Wheatley High School’s rating in the next several weeks, state law mandates that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath now must close the historic Fifth Ward campus or replace the district’s much-maligned school board with a state-appointed governance team. Morath and the agency’s leaders have strongly suggested they would appoint a new school board if forced to act.

The state law demands action against any district with a campus receiving five consecutive failing grades as of 2018, regardless of the district’s size. Wheatley avoided triggering sanctions last year because it received an accountability waiver due to Hurricane Harvey, but the campus narrowly fell short of meeting standards this year.

HISD received a “B” grade for districtwide performance, on par with many of the state’s largest urban districts. Its overall score of 88 marked a 4-point improvement over last year.

Twenty-one HISD schools received an “F” grade, equal to 7.5 percent of all district campuses. An identical number of HISD schools did not meet state academic standards last year, though most received a Harvey waiver.

Notably, several HISD high schools met standard after struggling in recent years. Kashmere High School received a “C” grade, the first time it has met standard in 11 years. Madison, Sterling and Washington high schools also earned “C” grades, while North Forest and Yates high schools narrowly missed a “C” rating and scored “D”s.

See here, here, and here for the background.As with the ethics investigation, in which the HISD board has a chance to respond, there’s an appeal process available for Wheatley. It should be noted, they came pretty close to making the grade, and the other three all did quite well. Which is not to say that all is wine and roses, as other schools got failing grades, and we could wind up in a similar place in a couple of years. Plus, as the Trib noted, other school districts in the same situation as HISD took advantage of the partnership provision of HB1842 to put the day of reckoning off for two more years. As we well know, that option was rejected by HISD in response to public pressure, without ever being fully explored. I thought that was a bad decision at the time, and I feel very justified in feeling that way today.

At this point, the only viable way forward that I see for anyone who wants to fight this is to explore legal action. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has been very clear in past public statements that the law does not give him any discretion in this matter. Either the failing schools (just Wheatley in this case) are closed, or a new Board of Trustees is appointed. A lawsuit could challenge that interpretation, and who knows, maybe it could succeed. I doubt it, but it’s got to be better odds than trying to put pressure on state leadership to find an alternative.

HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard wrote this op-ed about how we got here, detailing several points of failure by the Board. Perhaps if all nine Board members offered to resign on the spot, thus allowing an election of a new Board, that might satisfy the TEA. It would have to happen right now, because the filing deadline in Sunday, and we’d need to get a bunch of candidates up and running by then. This too is probably a pipe dream, but I don’t know what else there is to suggest at this time.

UPDATE: From this morning’s version of the story:

During an appearance with Morath on Thursday, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said HISD officials did not take advantage of funding opportunities and legislative maneuvers that could have staved off intervention. He cited the school board’s refusal to surrender control of long-struggling campuses to outside entities, an arrangement that could have temporarily prevented sanctions and brought an additional $1,800 per student to those campuses.

“We’ve given them every opportunity to be successful, and they continue to choose not to,” said Huberty, who chairs the Texas House’s Public Education Committee.

I hate to keep harping on the partnership thing, but as you can see it’s going to be used against the Board. And I hadn’t even known about the extra funds for students that was available.

So what’s the goal of a TEA takeover of HISD?

The history of TEA takeovers of school districts is mixed, so we ought to be clear about what the forthcoming takeover of HISD is supposed to do.

In recent years, districts subject to state-appointed boards successfully have balanced budgets and repaired leadership fissures but mostly struggled to immediately raise student achievement.

The immediate track record of state-appointed school boards does not bode well for drastic, quick repairs in the state’s largest school district, which has been dogged by chronically low performance at several schools and allegations of misconduct by trustees. HISD could trigger the appointment of a replacement school board if any one of four long-struggling schools fails to meet state academic standards this month, or if Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath upholds his staff’s recommendation this week to remove trustees following an investigation into alleged misconduct.

However, HISD presents a unique case with no precedent in state or national education. Never before has a public school district with 200,000-plus students, relatively strong districtwide academic performance and a solid balance sheet lost local control over its governance. A replacement board likely would be tasked with addressing the district’s lowest-rated campuses and resetting governance of HISD.

Ben Melson, director of public policy for the Greater Houston Partnership, which has advocated for installing a board of managers in HISD, said replacement boards in other Texas districts have “had a lot of success in addressing very specific issues” that prompted their appointment. Districts such as Beaumont and Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, however, remain low-rated academically, each receiving the equivalent of a “D” grade last year under the state’s accountability system.

“On that front, you see student assessment results, student outcomes overall, really stay stagnant,” said Melson, who has researched the efficacy of boards of managers for the partnership. “There really was no significant increase or decrease over the time of the board of managers. It’ll be an interesting opportunity for a board of managers to have their sole focus on students and improving student outcomes.”

The possible appointment of a replacement board largely has split the HISD community, with supporters arguing the move would refocus district efforts on students and opponents decrying it as an undemocratic seizure of power by state bureaucrats. To date, public outcry about losing local control over the district has been relatively muted.

See here and here for the background. There are two reasons why the TEA will or may exercise its authority to oust the Board of Trustees: The ethics investigation that has already led to a recommendation to take over, and the need for those four schools to make standards, which may lead to the same recommendation. That suggests two obvious goals: To get those schools up to standard, and to improve the functioning of the Board. The latter seems more achievable – at least, there’s a direct path to it, by the simple expedient of most if not all of the current members stepping down. Two of them are already doing so, with a third being rumored to do so this year. No guarantees of course – maybe the next generation of Board members that get elected will have similar problems – but it’s the obvious way to go.

Bringing the four schools up to standard is another matter. Ideally, the work HISD has done already will accomplish that – we’ll know very soon one way or the other. If one or more of them don’t make it, then it’s on the TEA and its appointed Trustees to do better. As noted in the story, that’s not so easily done. The way forward is not clear. If I’m the TEA, I know what outcome I’m rooting for.

As for the reaction to the TEA stepping in, I’m not happy about what is happening, but as I said before, it’s hard to be too vehement in defense of the Board. It’s hard for me to say that – I know most of the Trustees, and I like them. For whatever the reason, they didn’t function well together. The report is unflattering. I wish none of this was the case. I have no particular reason to trust the TEA, or to think the appointed Trustees will be any better qualified or more likely to make progress on the issues HISD now faces. But this is the situation we’re in, and the aim should be to get HISD’s governance back on track. I don’t know what else to say.

It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

Texas Education Agency officials have recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace Houston ISD’s locally elected school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some trustees, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators.

The recommendation and findings, issued by TEA Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt, will not become final until HISD officials have had an opportunity to respond. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust HISD’s school board. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to respond, and Morath likely would issue a final decision in the following weeks.

In his recommendation, Hewitt wrote that HISD trustees should be replaced by a state-appointed board due to their “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed.”

[…]

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by HISD’s much-maligned school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust. Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in the summer and fall of 2018 when trustees clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who took over as interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s abrupt departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with Lathan, believing she had not been responsive to their desires for the district and failed to adequately protect them from a threat posed by a community activist.

Through interviews and a review of text messages, state investigators determined the five trustees — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent. The meetings took place at a Houston restaurant on the same day in October 2018, the report said. Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires trustees to conduct district business in public.

Three days later, the five trustees voted to replace Lathan with Saavedra, offering no advance warning to the public or the other four board members about the move. Trustees reinstated Lathan within a week of the vote following intense public backlash. Lathan remains the district’s indefinite leader.

TEA officials interviewed trustees as part of their investigation, ultimately determining that Dávila and Lira falsely claimed in interviews with investigators that they only met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

In an interview Wednesday, Dávila said she provided her best recollection of meeting Saavedra to TEA investigators, and denied that she attempted to mislead state officials.

“They wanted us to remember things that happened six, seven months prior to us being interviewed,” Dávila said.

So in the end it will be the ethics investigation that brings down the Board. We’ll get the performance results for the schools, including the four that needed to meet standards this year, on August 15, so there may be another cause for the demise, but this one came first. This isn’t final yet – the Board has until the 15th to respond to this report, and then TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gets to make his ruling – but the handwriting on the wall is quite clear. The state is stepping in to take over the HISD Board.

The report isn’t public yet – I presume it will be by the time Morath issues his ruling – but the Chron got to see it. The other misconduct allegations reported in the story apply to Diana Davila, with Sergio Lira also being accused of not being truthful to investigators. I feel like in other circumstances, with a Board that wasn’t already under a conservator, this would be an embarrassment but not the end of the existing Board. In such other circumstances, I might be moved to outrage at the prospect of our democratically elected Board being summarily replaced, even if only for a couple of years, by state-selected trustees. I find it hard to muster any such reaction this time. I find myself resignedly in agreement with this:

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who frequently has criticized colleagues who voted to oust Lathan, said replacement of the school board is “sadly, unfortunately” in the district’s best interests.

“I think it’s tragic, but I think the alternative is worse,” Jones said.

The good news, such as it is, is that the four schools in question, which have been making progress, will probably not be closed. That was a huge point of contention with the parent groups. If that’s truly off the table, then my guess is that reaction to this will be somewhat more muted. Who is going to step up to defend the current board, and demand that the TEA leave them in place?

It should be noted that there will still be elections for HISD trustees this November. These elected trustees, along with the others that are not on the November ballot, will still serve but have much less power in the interim. At least two of the four trustees whose terms are up this year (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is running for HCC Board, and Jolanda Jones) have announced they are not running for re-election, with Davila being rumored to not run again as well. If the end result of all this is that in another two or four years we get to elect nine new members, and (hopefully) the sword of Damocles that is the academic standards issue is not looming over us when we do (good luck with that, whoever the TEA picks to run the place), I find it hard to be too upset about that. I’m certainly not more upset than I am about everything that led to this.

Achieve 180 schools showing progress

I hope it’s enough.

Houston ISD schools covered by the district’s $16 million campus turnaround plan saw modest improvements in the program’s first year — enough to outpace gains reported across the district, but not nearly enough to pull chronically low-performing schools on par with peers.

A report published this week by HISD showed the 44 schools included in the turnaround plan, known as Achieve 180, largely exceeded or mirrored district improvements in 2017-18 on several key academic and behavioral metrics, including state standardized test scores, exclusionary discipline rates and participation in more challenging courses. The improvements were reflected in the number of Achieve 180 schools meeting state standard — and avoiding the dreaded “improvement required” label — rising from 18 in 2017 to 33 in 2018.

In some areas, however, Achieve 180 schools saw little to no positive movement. Student attendance and chronic absenteeism rates remained stagnant, which district officials largely attributed to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Out-of-school suspension rates barely moved, remaining three times greater than non-Achieve 180 schools. Highly-rated teachers did not move in large numbers to Achieve 180 schools, unswayed by $5,000 bonuses offered by district officials.

In an interview Thursday, HISD’s area superintendent responsible for Achieve 180, Felicia Adams, said district leaders were “pretty satisfied” with the first-year results, especially since some campuses implemented portions of the initiative later in the 2017-18 school year.

“These are schools that have been struggling for quite some time. To at least get out of being an ‘improved requirement’ campus was a major gain for many of them,” Adams said.

[…]

According to the district report, which analyzed student performance in 2017-18 relative to the prior year, math and reading passage rates on STAAR, the state’s primary standardized test, rose about 6 percent in Achieve 180 schools — double the 3 percent increase seen across the rest of the district.

The use of in-school suspensions also dropped by about 21 percent at Achieve 180 schools, roughly the same rate as campuses not covered by the initiative.

Perhaps most notably, about 8 percent more students in Achieve 180 schools took an Advanced Placement exam last year, while 3 percent fewer students in non-Achieve 180 schools sat for a test.

Even with the improvements in STAAR test performance, passage rates at Achieve 180 schools remain roughly 15 percent to 20 percent lower than the rest of the district. In addition, students at Achieve 180 schools passed about 14 percent of their Advanced Placement exams in 2018, compared to 39 percent throughout HISD.

Some Achieve 180 schools also fell further behind last year, including four campuses that have failed to meet state academic standards for four-plus consecutive years.

That, obviously, is the most important metric right now. The overall improvements are great, and one wonders how much more could be done with sufficient resources and some more time, but either those four schools make standard or the TEA climbs aboard. For all the mishegas at HISD this year, and with the continued uncertainty surrounding the HISD Board, Achieve 180 is worthwhile program that has generated real results. Again, as above, I just hope it’s enough.

HISD’s last stand

They have their work cut out for them.

Houston ISD’s four Hispanic trustees took hold of the school board’s top officer positions Thursday, led by Trustee Diana Dávila winning election as president of the much-maligned governance team.

Dávila, who has spent a decade on the board spread over two separate terms, will take responsibility for setting the leadership tone in HISD following months of governance strife that has often cut across ethnic and racial lines. Elected officers do not have more voting power than other trustees, but the board president presides over board meetings and drives the agenda.

Dávila said her priorities will include ensuring the district’s longest-struggling schools get resources needed to meet state academic standards, fighting for more education funding and restructuring board meetings to foster greater engagement and transparency.

“I’m looking to be bringing back some of those things we used to do before, making sure that we respect each other as colleagues on the board and respect the administration,” said Dávila, who served as board president in 2006.

The best thing the Board can do at this time is minimize dissension within their ranks, speak with one voice as much as possible, and find a permanent Superintendent. Accomplishing those first two should make the third go more smoothly.

This joint op-ed by Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Elizabeth Santos is a good example of what I’m talking about.

This board was divided on some high-profile issues last year. The two of us have been on opposite sides on some of those fights. But we are united in a vision for a school district where neighborhood schools are cornerstones of their communities, equity is a guiding principle of resource allocation and all students receive educations that are tailored to their individual learning needs.

To achieve that vision, all levels of government involved in making education policy must take a long-term approach that addresses the costs of educating students living in poverty, English language learners and students with special needs. Unfortunately, state funding formulas — which have not changed in 30 years — woefully underestimate these costs.

[…]

Despite all of this, HISD has fared well under the flawed STAAR regime. The district earned an 84 percent rating with 91 percent of schools meeting standard. We reduced the number of schools that could trigger automatic state sanctions from 52 to 4, and we have maintained a recognized financial rating of 90 percent and a high bond rating.

It is baffling that HISD taxpayers are required to foot the entire bill for their district and also forfeit $100 million in “recaptured” dollars — and growing — to supplement the state’s obligation to other districts, while at the same time facing the risk of being stripped of their right to elect their own governing board. That hardly seems democratic or just.

Apparently “no taxation without representation” is just something we teach in our history classes.

I agree with pretty much everything they say in this piece. I hope over the next eight months – and, ideally, a lot longer than that – we can focus on those things, and not on whatever is going on with the Board.

The TEA could have already taken over HISD

I had not known this.

For more than a year, Houston ISD leaders have fretted over the possibility of a state takeover mandated under a recently passed law, known as HB 1842. The statute directs the Texas Education Agency to close schools or replace a district’s locally-elected board of trustees if any campus receives five straight “improvement required” ratings for poor academic achievement. Houston narrowly avoided that punishment in 2018, when six long-struggling schools met state standard. Four campuses still could still trigger sanctions this year.

However, a lesser-known law quietly has loomed over the district. Texas law states that the education commissioner may replace the school board in a district under scrutiny from a state-appointed conservator for two consecutive years — a threshold Houston crossed in September 2017. Houston’s conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, was appointed in September 2016 to monitor Kashmere High School, which has failed to meet state academic standards for nine consecutive years. Her responsibilities expanded to monitoring the district’s school board and other long-struggling schools in mid-2017.

To date, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath has chosen to not replace Houston’s school board, exercising discretion granted to him under the conservator law. Instead, the TEA has taken several steps to work with Houston administrators and board members: keeping Delaney in place, requiring on-the-ground assistance from outside educators, overseeing campus turnaround plans and offering governance training, among other supports. Lira said trustees have not been threatened with immediate replacement by TEA officials, and that the agency’s staff has been “willing to work with us as long as we have a plan in place.”

In a statement, TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland said Abbott and Morath are working in concert to help Houston.

“Any action taken by Commissioner Morath or TEA to ensure Houston ISD has been given ample time, resources and support to achieve the best outcomes for students has also come with the full support of the governor and is in alignment with their shared vision of improving education outcomes in the district,” Wieland said.

Here’s the Chron story about Delaney’s appointment in 2016. This story from July of last year mentions that she had been appointed in January to keep an eye on district governance and the then-10 turnaround schools. I’m a little surprised no one has made anything of this before now, but here we are.

It should be clear why the state has been reluctant to step in, despite Greg Abbott’s nasty tweet. If the TEA takes over, then the TEA owns all of the problems that HISD is trying to solve. That’s a much tougher task than their current advisory role. I strongly suspect that Mike Morath and the TEA really really want the four schools to meet standard this year, in part because they want the schools and the kids to succeed, and in part because they really really don’t want to be saddled with the job of running a massive, diverse, sprawling school district. That’s not their job, and there’s nothing in the track record of past takeovers by state agencies, here and elsewhere, to suggest they’ll do any better at it than HISD has done. There’s a reason why Abbott hasn’t had much to say about this since his Trumpian Twitter moment.

By far the best possible outcome is for these schools to meet standard this year. The question that matters is what can everyone do to help make that happen.

City tries again with non-profit charter for HISD

Nobody seems to like this idea.

Juliet Stipeche

The city of Houston’s education czar and three well-connected, civically engaged residents plan in the coming weeks to seek control of some long-struggling Houston ISD schools in a bid to improve academic outcomes and help the district stave off major state sanctions tied to chronically low performance at the campuses.

State business records show Juliet Stipeche, the director of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, and the three board members have formed the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston, a nonprofit that could partner with HISD to take over campuses under a state law encouraging charter agreements between school districts and private organizations.

If an agreement with HISD were struck, the nonprofit envisions assuming control of academics, finances and governance at an undetermined number of schools. The portfolio likely would include four campuses in danger of triggering sanctions — either forced campus closures or a state takeover of HISD’s locally elected school board — if any one of them fails to meet state academic standards in 2019. In exchange, the state would provide an additional $1,800 per student in funding to the nonprofit, and it would grant HISD a two-year reprieve from sanctions if it surrendered control of the four campuses.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and school board members have shown little enthusiasm for such arrangements to date, but they have not precluded the possibility ahead of a state-imposed deadline in early February 2019 to submit any agreements. The arrangements are intended to be temporary, with control over the campuses returned to a school district after a contractually agreed-upon period.

Stipeche, who served as an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2015, said the coalition will seek to engage other local civic organizations in providing resources to students who attend schools that often fail to meet state academic standards. The coalition has not yet solidified its educational framework or crafted a proposal for public viewing, Stipeche said.

“We envision working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools as centers of excellence, equity and innovation,” Stipeche said. “We are working on finalizing an overview of what we would like to present to the board for their consideration in terms of how we work, what our core values and vision are, and what our building blocks of success are.”

The coalition includes three founding board members: Trinidad “Trini” Mendenhall, the co-founder of the grocery chain Fiesta Mart and president of the real estate investment firm Fulton Shopping Center; Stephanie Nellons-Paige, the vice president of external affairs for Texas Central Railway and wife of former HISD superintendent Rod Paige; and Corbin Robertson Jr., CEO and chairman of the mining company Natural Resources Partners.

See here, here, and here for some background. HISD doesn’t seem to be into the idea, there’s some very vocal opposition from activist groups, and as Campos reasonably notes, the city has its own big issues to deal with instead of trying to solve the problems that HISD’s trustees were elected to solve. All of that mitigates against the city getting involved, but I find it hard to get too upset over this. Not to be all alarmist or anything, but the clock is ticking, and I don’t know what HISD’s intentions are. Obviously, it would be great if the schools could be brought up to standard this year – that is the ultimate goal, after all. Alternately, getting a bill passed in the Lege to modify the law that is putting HISD under the threat of takeover by the TEA would obviate the need for this kind of intervention. All I want to know is, what is the plan if these things don’t happen? Given what the law as it is mandates, what is the least objectionable outcome if one or more schools do not measure up? I don’t know what the consensus answer to that is, or even if there is one. I would love to see this resolved with a fully positive ending – successful schools, functioning governance at HISD, sufficient engagement by and with the parents and students and teachers and residents of the affected neighborhoods, etc. I just want to know what Plan B is if that doesn’t happen.

TEA offers to lend HISD a hand

Could be a decent deal.

A top Texas Education Agency official offered Tuesday to intensively work with Houston ISD’s much-maligned school board to dramatically overhaul its approach to governance, shifting focus toward student outcomes and away from distracting personal agendas.

The pitch from TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill marks a unique olive branch to the state’s largest school district, which has struggled in recent months to reach consensus on vital issues.

“We can scrap all of what you’re doing now and redesign from scratch a governance system that honors your values and focuses on student values,” TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill told trustees during a school board meeting.

Trustees in attendance offered mostly positive responses to Crabill’s offer, which would be free of charge, agreeing that HISD’s school board needs dramatic changes to restore confidence in its governance. Board members agreed in October to seek an executive coach in the aftermath of the covert attempt to replace Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, but employing a TEA official as their coach was not widely expected.

[…]

Trustees could vote as early as mid-December on Crabill’s proposal, though HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she would not put the move up for vote if any trustee opposes the move.

HISD’s school board is responsible for setting district policy, hiring the superintendent and approving the district’s budget. The nine trustees are elected by voters in single-member districts.

Crabill’s offer came with some strings and relatively few concrete details. He said trustees must unanimously approve of his presence and “immediately resolve” any “gamesmanship” around his involvement. A few trustees, led by Jolanda Jones, have been fiercely critical of TEA leadership. Jones was not present for most of Crabill’s presentation and did not voice an opinion on it Tuesday.

Crabill said his primary goal would be moving toward trustees spending at least half of their time during board meetings focused on student outcomes. In recent months, trustees have spent significant amounts of time discussing relatively minor financial and policy matters, while occasionally engaging in deeply personal arguments.

Crabill did not outline a concrete vision for his work for trustees, but told them: “If you’re not comfortable with extreme discomfort, I’m not your guy.”

I mean, it’s worth hearing him out, if the other end of the bridge is an intact HISD with the four schools in question meeting standards. I can understand why some trustees might be leery of this, but it can’t hurt to hear the pitch. It would also be a good idea to let parents and teachers hear what Crabill has to say, since they’re going to be directly affected by whatever he might have in mind as well. See what he has in mind, and go from there. We’re no worse off if we decide to say “thanks, but no thanks”.

Falling short on college readiness

Not good.

A majority of students at the top-rated high schools in Texas are likely to need remedial course work when they get to college because they don’t score well enough on entrance exams, a Hearst Newspapers analysis of newly released school accountability data shows.

More than 900 high schools in the state received the equivalent of an A or B rating from the state last month. But the analysis shows that at two-thirds of those schools, the majority of students are failing to score high enough on the SAT or ACT to be considered “college ready,” increasing the chances that they’ll need remedial course work in college and jeopardizing their chances of getting a college diploma.

The low number of Texas students who are adequately prepared for college has emerged again as an issue as state lawmakers study education funding this fall, in preparation for the Legislative Session, which starts in January. At a meeting Tuesday, education committee chairman Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, recommended giving more money to schools for each student who scores college-ready on the entrance exams.

Another group of lawmakers studying the performance of Texas schools, including Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, recommended that Texas do away with the STAAR test, the state standardized exam, and instead use the SAT or ACT to hold high schools accountable.

The state’s top education official says Texas is steadily raising the bar for what students are expected to learn, and schools are improving.

But education experts say the combination of high ratings and low college readiness scores exposes a major flaw in the state’s accountability system. They say the gap is proof that lawmakers are placing too much emphasis on improving scores on the STAAR and high school graduation rates, rather than on preparing students for what happens after they finish high school.

“To get an A means this school is doing a good job of getting an increasing number, and a majority number, of its students ready for the next stage in life,” said Sandy Kress, a former senior adviser for George W. Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind, the law that brought accountability ratings to schools across the country. “You have no business getting an A if you can’t tell me that.”

I don’t know what the answer is for this, though I have a pretty good guess that it would involve spending more money up front and across the board. I do know that our state will suffer from the lack of truly college-ready students, and the students themselves are being poorly served by schools that aren’t doing what they could and should be doing. Meanwhile, Greg Abbott is busy running ads claiming credit for everything under the sun. Maybe someone should ask him about this.

HISD avoids sanctions for this year

Big sigh of relief.

Houston ISD will avoid major state sanctions for at least one year after four of its longest-struggling schools met state academic standards this year, according to preliminary results released Wednesday.

The announcement ensures the Texas Education Agency will not replace HISD’s locally elected school board in the coming months or close campuses that repeatedly have failed to meet academic standards before the 2019-20 school year. Under a new state law, commonly known as HB 1842, the TEA would have been required to implement one of the two sanctions if any of the four HISD campuses received another “improvement required” rating this year due to substandard academic performance.

[…]

The four HISD campuses that made standard to avoid triggering sanctions are Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School. Each of those four had failed to meet standard for four to six consecutive years prior to 2018.

Although HISD will avoid sanctions this year, the threat of state-imposed punishment likely will loom throughout the 2018-19 school year.

Four low-performing HISD schools likely will risk triggering sanctions next year if they fail to meet academic standards when results are released in August 2019. Those four campuses are Highland Heights elementary schools, Henry Middle School, Kashmere and Wheatley high schools.

In an interview Wednesday, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath praised HISD’s accomplishment while cautioning more work needs to be done in Texas’ largest school district.

“Houston ISD has made progress, like many school systems across the state. That’s clear and that’s very good news,” Morath said. “But there’s obviously still a number of schools that need greater support throughout Houston, and I know they’re working diligently on that.”

See here for some background. As noted, the schools that qualified for Harvey waivers will need to be up to standard next year or the same sanctions will apply, but at least that gives the district another year to get there. Getting these found schools up to standard is a laudable accomplishment, and an encouraging sign that what the district had been doing has been working. Kudos to all, and let’s keep up the good work. The Trib has more.

Lots of Harvey waivers out there

And good for the school districts that got them.

The vast majority of Houston-area school districts will be eligible for academic accountability waivers this year due to Hurricane Harvey, meaning they will be labeled “not rated” unless they score an “A” grade for excellence, the Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday.

The list of waiver-eligible districts includes 19 of the region’s 25 largest school districts. The six exceptions: Conroe, Klein, Pearland, Tomball, New Caney and Magnolia independent school districts. About 110 school districts were deemed eligible for waivers statewide, stretching from Port Aransas to Houston to Beaumont.

TEA officials on Wednesday also released the full list of roughly 1,200 Houston-area schools that will be eligible for campus-level accountability waivers, which will preclude them from receiving an “improvement required” label this year. The list, as expected, includes six Houston ISD campuses that would have triggered major state sanctions had any one received an “improvement required” rating this year. Four other HISD schools that could trigger sanctions this year are not among the waiver-eligible campuses.

[…]

Most Houston-area districts likely will not receive a letter grade for academic performance in 2018, the first year of the state’s new “A”-through-”F” accountability system, after qualifying for waivers. In previous years, districts were labeled “met standard” or “improvement required.” Campuses still will receive those two ratings in 2018, with the “A”-through-”F” system extending to schools in 2019.

In some districts, including those closed for 10 days or more due to Harvey, every campus also will be exempt from receiving an “improvement required” rating. Those districts include Alief, Fort Bend, Katy, Pasadena and Spring.

In other areas, the district and some — but not all — campuses will be eligible for accountability waivers. In Houston ISD, for example, 185 out of 285 campuses are waiver-eligible.

[…]

Klein ISD Superintendent Bret Champion said he believed any district that lost instructional time due to Harvey should receive an exemption. Klein ISD closed for seven days after Harvey, with one of its 53 campuses shuttered for the entire school year due to storm damage.

“There wasn’t a soul who wasn’t impacted by Harvey is some way, shape or form,” Champion said.

See here and here for some background. I personally agree with Bret Champion, but I wasn’t asked for my input. The stakes are higher for HISD than they are for other districts, but even without that I say the disruption was enough that a do-over for all was warranted. We’ll see what the effect of taking a less-broad approach will be.

HISD is optimistic about not being taken over (yet)

I hope it’s warranted.

Several of Houston ISD’s longest-struggling elementary and middle schools posted significant gains on state standardized tests in 2018, including all three campuses that must meet Texas academic standards this year to avoid triggering major sanctions, according to preliminary data released this week by the district and the Texas Education Agency.

District leaders are “hopeful” those strong gains will be enough for HISD to stave off campus closures or a state takeover of its locally-elected school board when final results are released in mid-August, a top HISD administrator said this week. At the same time, a few of the district’s chronically underperforming schools appear less likely to meet state standards this year, putting HISD at risk of punishment next year if those campuses do not show immediate improvement.

The largely positive results offer another glimmer of hope for HISD as it seeks to avoid state intervention tied to its failure to improve performance at its lowest-performing schools in recent years, a possibility that has roiled the district for months. District officials already were buoyed by an earlier release of preliminary data, which showed strong gains in grades 5 and 8, as well as high schools. The latest data include results for grades 3, 4, 6 and 7, providing a fuller picture of elementary and middle school performance.

Headed into the 2017-18 school year, 10 HISD schools had to meet state academic standards to avoid triggering sanctions after receiving at least four straight “improvement required” annual ratings. However, it is expected six of those schools will receive a one-year academic accountability reprieve due to Hurricane Harvey, leaving four campuses — Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School — at risk of triggering punishment this year.

HISD administrators said they cannot yet conclude whether those four campuses will meet standards before Aug. 15, when the state makes it official. However, after analyzing the available test scores and reviewing Texas’ revised accountability system, district staff are cautiously optimistic all four campuses will shed the “improvement required” label.

“We’re hopeful. The data looked good for the campuses,” Carla Stevens, HISD’s assistant superintendent of research and accountability, said in an interview this week. “You can see there’s progress for a lot of these schools, and that’s what we’re counting on.”

See here for the background. Obviously, I hope they make it, but even if they do there will still be next year to contend with, as the schools who qualify for the waiver will need to be up to standard by then, so there’s no time to relax. We’ll know the answer in a few weeks.

HISD considers charter partnership

They’ve got to do something to keep the TEA at bay.

Energized For STEM Academy Inc., an organization run by NAACP Houston Branch President James Douglas and former Houston ISD trustee Paula Harris, has been selected as the potential partner to run 10 long-struggling HISD schools at risk of triggering major state sanctions this year.

HISD trustees are scheduled to vote Tuesday on negotiating and executing a contract with Energized For STEM Academy, which already runs seven in-district charter schools in HISD, to take over operations of the 10 schools ahead of the 2018-19 school year, according to a public meeting notice posted Friday. District officials haven’t released terms of a contract, but it’s expected Energized For STEM Academy would be responsible for hiring, governance and operations at each school.

District officials have recommended temporarily surrendering control over the 10 schools as part of an effort to stave off sanctions due to chronically low academic performance. In exchange for relinquishing control, HISD would get a two-year reprieve from a potential state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board or forced campus closures.

[…]

Douglas, who has previously served as president of Texas Southern University and helped form Energized For STEM Academy’s governing board in 2008, said he’s been in discussion with HISD leaders about the arrangement for three weeks. A contract hasn’t been drawn up, and many details will be worked out in the coming days ahead of an April 30 deadline to submit partnership plans to the Texas Education Agency, Douglas said.

“We know we have to do in a few days what normally would take months to do,” Douglas said. “But that’s what has been handed to us, and that’s what we have to deal with. We can’t waste time worrying about what we need.”

There’s not a lot to go on here, but then it’s not like there are a ton of other great options out there. Reaction is mixed, as you might expect.

A long-awaited proposal from Houston ISD to temporarily surrender control over 10 of its lowest-performing schools is facing mixed reviews ahead of a crucial vote Tuesday.

Case in point: the president of Houston’s largest teachers union, Zeph Capo, blasted the proposal to allow Energized For STEM Academy to run all 10 schools as ill-conceived and hastily arranged, saying he has “no confidence that this is in the best interest of children.” Meanwhile, Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones defended the arrangement as “the best choice of all the bad choices” available to HISD, which faces forced campus closures or a state takeover of its locally elected school board without a partnership.

[…]

Energized For STEM Academy currently operates middle and high schools with roughly 1,000 students combined. The campuses are overseen by Lois Bullock, who has operated in-district HISD charters since 1998. Its two high schools had graduation rates, state standardized test scores and SAT scores that were well above HISD averages in 2016-17. However, one of its middle schools was rated “improvement required” by the state in 2014 and 2016.

Douglas and Bullock oversee three additional in-district HISD charter schools with a similar name, Energized For Excellence Academy, but those campuses have a different governing board.

Capo, who heads the Houston Federation of Teachers, said he has deep concerns about Energized For STEM Academy’s ability to improve academic performance after conducting initial research. He questioned how an organization educating about 1,000 students can oversee an additional 6,000-plus students.

“What evidence do we have that says they can actually do the job?” Capo said.

Capo added that residents and local education advocates, including his union, haven’t had enough time to vet Energized For STEM Academy for possible improper ties to for-profit entities or other conflicts of interest. The organization has filed annual 990 tax forms, which detail many spending patterns, but they don’t post annual financial audits or governing board meeting minutes on their website.

“(Trustees) need to grow a backbone and pay deep, close attention to what’s happening before they vote,” Capo said. “There are far too many questions left unanswered before they vote on Tuesday.”

Skillern-Jones said she supports forming partnerships if it means keeping local control and avoiding campus closures, which she called “devastating” to neighborhoods that are predominately black and Hispanic. She said her constituents, who make up six of the 10 schools, wanted a partner with local ties. The only other organization under consideration for a partnership, Generation Schools Network, is based in New York.

“I’m still looking through all the information, but I know they have a good track record in the district for 20 years, which says to me that we’ve kept them around for a reason,” Skillern-Jones said.

See here for the last update. I get Zeph Capo’s concerns – this is all happening very fast, with not much public input, and while Energized For STEM seems to have a decent track record this is asking a lot from them with no guarantee that their methods will translate or scale to a larger group of students. On the other hand, the remaining options are to find a different charter operator, to close the affected schools and reconstitute them as smaller institutions (which is really unpopular with the affected communities), and hope for the best with this year’s STAAR results. Some activists are calling for HISD to sue the TEA; I’m not qualified to assess the merits of such a strategy, but if it works it would at least buy some time. Energized For STEM may well be the best of a bad lot, but that’s not the same as being good.

Harvey-affected schools may get a break on the STAAR test

Good.

Texas school districts hit hard by Hurricane Harvey may not have to worry as much about how well their students fare in this year’s standardized tests, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath announced Wednesday at a meeting of the State Board of Education.

Morath said at the meeting that he understood the impact of the storm on schools and students, possibly signaling that he would consider not applying this year’s scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, to the agency’s assessment of Harvey-affected school districts.

Students across the state began taking STAAR exams this week.

Agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said agency officials will “look at the STAAR scores, and [Morath] will make determinations on districts or campuses based on some kind of Harvey-related waiver.” Based on that determination, STAAR scores may not be included in Harvey-impacted schools’ ratings, Culbertson said.

“I’m anticipating that a relatively large number of campuses, from Corpus to the Louisiana border, would be eligible for that,” Morath told the State Board of Education on Wednesday. He cited the devastating effects on schools of student and staff displacement, as well as school facility closures and disruptions, as reasons behind the decision.

This has always been the sensible thing to do. It may be that scores are not affected, and it may be that there’s a big difference. Whatever the case, there is nothing to be gained from penalizing the districts that were affected by Harvey. This was a traumatic event, and many people are still hurting. Don’t make a bad situation worse. Kudos to Mike Morath for keeping that in mind.

One small piece of relief for Harvey-affected school districts

It’s not much, but it’s something.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is not changing state standardized test dates for students affected by Hurricane Harvey, but he is waiving some requirements for certain students, his agency said Thursday.

Students across the state will be still required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, as scheduled in March and May. But after pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott, Morath sent a letter to Harvey-affected school districts today saying students who fail required standardized state tests in fifth and eighth grade twice can graduate, as long as their local districts officials agree they are ready.

Normally, fifth- and eighth-grade students, who must pass the STAAR reading and math tests to graduate, must take the tests up to three times if they fail. If a student doesn’t pass on the third try, he or she cannot graduate unless a committee of his or her educators and parents unanimously agrees to promote the student.

With Morath’s announcement, Harvey-affected districts will have more leeway to decide whether to require students to take the test a third time and to decide locally whether students who fail the tests can graduate.

Rescheduling the STAAR tests was never really an option, as it would have been disruptive to many school districts. Indeed, a large majority of superintendents were opposed to rescheduling the STAAR. This at least gives some kids who have been traumatized in one way or another by Harvey a chance to stay on track, with their classmates. Morath may still make further adjustments to the accountability system later, which if it does happen will probably be after the tests are taken and we get some idea of how the scores were affected. At least the TEA is being open to suggestion.

Has Harvey changed anything politically?

You’d think it would, but it remains to be seen as far as I’m concerned.

A month to the day after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, the reality of the storm was beginning to sink in on the minds of politicians, policy makers and advocates bracing for a long recovery.

In short, any political plans people had pre-Harvey are now moot.

“Whatever any of us thought or hoped that the agenda for the next session would be, it is going to be overtaken by mother nature,” House Speaker Joe Straus told a full auditorium at the University of Texas Saturday. “It’s going to the biggest challenge that we face.”

[…]

Politicians said it’s still too soon to know exactly what the state needs to do to help the areas slammed by the storm cover, such as how much money it will cost to fix schools and roads and invest in such infrastructure to guard against future storms.

What policy experts and politicians across the board do know is it could take years for the state to recover.

The storm may provide an opportunity for a special legislative session for lawmakers to rethink the state’s school funding formula given property taxes, which schools depend on for funding, are expected to tank in storm-ravaged areas, said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble.

“I don’t believe 1 million children are going anywhere, but their homes have been destroyed,” he said, noting his home sustained $50,000 in damage from Harvey. “I just don’t see any path to victory for the schools if we don’t take this very seriously going forward.”

Huberty wants lawmakers to return to Austin for a special legislative session focused on storm relief. In that conversation, they could rehab the state’s school funding formula to level out funding for districts that stand to lose property tax revenue from the storm.

[…]

Education Commissioner Mike Morath said he’s still undecided about whether to cancel, delay or ease how the state grades schools based on the tests. However, his tone changed from last week when he told the State Board of Education it was unlikely Texas would tinker with the STAAR.

That will be worth keeping an eye on. I’ve been thinking about what would have to happen for me to accept that “things have changed” in a substantive fashion. Two possibilities come to mind:

1. A special session to address school finance. This can’t be just to make payments to districts to cover Harvey costs that insurance and the feds won’t pay, though that absolutely needs to happen, and it can’t be something that waits till 2019 and is the initiative of the House Education Committee and Speaker Straus, because we already know they’re on board for this. It also can’t be used as a vehicle for pushing through the usual hobbyhorses like vouchers or the new obsessions like bathroom bills. The call would have to include both addressing disaster funding and more importantly the overall inequities of the system. The reason why this would be a change would be that it would demonstrate for the first time that Greg Abbott wants to fix this problem, and it would provide him with the chance to separate himself from Dan Patrick. For a variety of what should be obvious reasons, I don’t expect this to happen, but if it does it will be a real change.

2. Someone loses an election as a result of being unwilling to take positive action to abet recovery. I don’t think this will happen because right now the main obstacle to getting things done is Paul Bettencourt, and he’s not in any position to lose a race. The members of Congress who voted against Harvey aid, whatever their reasons for doing so, are all well outside the affected area. If a special session does happen, then that would create opportunities for people to say and do potentially costly things, but in the absence of such, I any current officeholder has much to worry about at this time.

I’m sure there are other possibilities, but these are what come to my mind. Everything else feels like normal business to me. Maybe if the state winds up doing nothing to help cities and school districts cover costs, despite the $10 billion-plus in the Rainy Day Fund, that would count as something having changed, though that’s clearly not what the story is about. I’m open to the idea that “things” will “change” after Harvey, but I’m going to wait until I see it happen before I believe it.

More on recapture and the Rainy Day Fund

There are some conditions that have to be met to get our recapture money back.

Houston Independent School District won’t have to hand millions of dollars to the state to spend at other schools if HISD needs that money to recover from Hurricane Harvey, but the district will have to apply for that money, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Friday.

The same goes for any of the roughly 250 school districts in declared disaster areas that are required to pay so-called recapture payments to the state as part of the “Robin Hood” program that siphons money from property wealthy school districts to give to property poor ones.

Morath, who leads the Texas Education Agency, said school districts will need to apply for the funds with the state and pay any recapture money not need for Harvey recovery. First, districts will have to exhaust their insurance and federal aid before trying to tap that money, he said.

“They have to have exhausted all their other funding sources first,” said Morath.

See here for the background. I get it, we want to make sure that all sources of recovery revenue are fully tapped. Let’s just make sure this doesn’t turn into a reason to nickel-and-dime the school districts, or to bury them under paperwork. The priority is the kids and their schools and teachers. We should not lose sight of that.

In related news, the state may make a bigger commitment to helping school districts recover.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Education Commissioner Mike Morath signaled Wednesday that the state will use rainy day funds to help schools saddled with Hurricane Harvey-related expenses, but the chances are slim that the state will delay state standardized tests planned for next spring.

Patrick, a Houston Republican, made vows to close to 45 superintendents from storm damaged areas in southeast Texas that he would support holding funding at current levels for school districts losing students due to Harvey, and for increasing money for school systems gaining displaced students.

[…]

Morath’s statements came one day after Patrick met with superintendents vowing state aid for storm-related costs not covered by insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The promise came during a meeting Tuesday between Patrick and administrators of school districts affected by flooding.

In a press release sent late Wednesday, Patrick doubled down on that support, but stopped short of promising the state would cover all costs not covered by insurance plans and federal agencies.

The state aid could help prevent deep financial cuts in the hardest-hit school districts, and it could keep districts’ “rainy day” funds intact. Several districts, including Houston and Aldine ISDs, dipped into their reserve funds this year to balance their budgets.

In a statement, Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said Patrick “made it clear that it was his goal for districts to be made whole financially, both in terms of funding related to student attendance and facility repairs.” District officials don’t have an estimate of storm-related costs, but Kingwood High School, home to 2,800 students, will be closed for at least several months due to flood damage.

“The state’s intent to protect schools will help make a very difficult year more manageable, and we are encouraged,” Fagen said.

I’m glad, but I’m not inclined to take Dan Patrick’s word on anything, so I’ll want to see how this plays out. I can’t think of a good reason why the state shouldn’t completely fill any gaps that are left by insurance and the feds. There’s plenty of money in the Rainy Day Fund, and using it in this fashion would help districts avoid painful cuts or possibly tax increases. There needs to be a commitment to getting every district, school, and student back to where they were before the storm. If that’s asking for a lot, well, Harvey did a lot of damage. Are we going to shrug our shoulders, or are we going to be up to the challenge?

House to study Harvey-related issues

Good to see.

Rep. Joe Straus

House Speaker Joe Straus is asking three House committees to wade into issues related to Hurricane Harvey, including how the state can maximize federal funds and whether to rethink how to grade schools affected by the storm this year.

Straus issued five interim charges Thursday, focused largely on education issues, like the scope of damage to schools and figuring out how to help districts absorbing students displaced by Harvey. He also wants lawmakers to look at student testing and accountability to “prevent unintended punitive consequences to both students and districts.”

[…]

Straus’ other charges include taking a close look at the state’s infrastructure and use of state and federal funds during storm recovery and review the role of regional entities to developing flood control projects.

“Hurricane Harvey has devastated our state and upended the lives of millions of Texans,” said Straus said in a letter to House members asking for further suggestions of issues lawmakers should study leading up to the next legislative session that begins in January of 2019. “The importance of getting these issues right when we meet again demands that we start working on them now.”

As we know, the TEA isn’t inclined to cut school districts any slack at this time, so it’s nice for the Lege to look at that. I’ll be very interested to see what they come up with regarding infrastructure. As noted before, we authorized a fund for building reservoirs and the like. What are we doing with that, and can we use it for flood mitigation instead of drought mitigation? This seems like as good a time as any to find out. The Trib has more.

Don’t expect any STAAR slack

Sorry, kids.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday morning that the state was not likely to let students displaced by Hurricane Harvey delay a required state test this school year — or to change the way school districts are graded at the end of the school year.

“I would say, given the information I have, it doesn’t look likely that we would be able to make too many changes on assessment, and for that matter, on accountability,” Morath told the State Board of Education. “We haven’t made any final decisions yet. But we still want to make sure students know how to read, write and do math.”

Educators and advocates for fewer state tests said they were dismayed by Morath’s statement and hope he will consider waiving requirements for southeast Texas districts that have had to postpone classes. State Rep. Dan Huberty, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he has heard from constituents on the matter and will hold a public hearing in the next few weeks to consider how the Legislature can help schools impacted by August’s storm.

Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he plans to invite educators from all impacted schools to testify.

[…]

“We had a dramatic and traumatic event just occur that affected so many folks in the southeast Texas area,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of Klein ISD, located just north of Houston. “We absolutely are about teaching rigorous material around academics, but we also provide for an awful lot of social-emotional wellness” for traumatized students.

Champion suggested the state consider moving the test dates back. Klein ISD students missed seven days of classes, as administrators surveyed flooded buildings. Teachers and students are still cleaning out flooded homes, and some have lost everything. “A little more time to be able to assess that would be helpful,” he said.

Two advisory groups of educators, legislative representatives and businesspeople meet twice a year to discuss the accountability system for school districts and advise Morath on how to implement it. Laura Yeager, who has served as an adviser for the past two years, said she will bring up waiving accountability grades for school districts at the upcoming October meeting.

“I’m not sure how they can rate a district or student on growth when they have lost or gained so many students,” said Yeager, who is also a board member of Texans Advocating for Meaningful State Assessment, which has lobbied the Legislature for fewer state tests.

I hope Commissioner Morath will take his time making a final decision. Champion and Yeager have both raised valid concerns that should be taken seriously. It may be that displaced students will do just fine and the overall effect of Harvey will be minimal, but if it isn’t there shouldn’t be a penalty for that. Morath and the TEA need to keep an open mind about this.

What will this school year be like?

School has finally started for most of HISD and many surrounding districts, but with the devastation and disruption of Harvey, what can we expect from this academic year?

Many students in Houston ISD lost everything – their homes, their school supplies, their clothes, their toys.

Some are staying in the mega-shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Park. Others were flown by military helicopter to Dallas and San Antonio, where they have already started school. Still more are shaken after being plucked from their flooded homes by boats and Humvees.

With more than 600,000 Houston-area students set to return to the classroom Monday, teachers and school officials wonder how many will show up – and if they’ll be ready to learn.

And at some schools, business as usual will be a distant memory.

“It’s hard to focus on the lesson of the day when you’re worried about, ‘How is my home? How is my family?” said Ezemenari Obasi, associate dean for research in the University of Houston’s College of Education. “Those questions and worries become more salient than the lesson plan at school.”

[…]

While school can help provide some sense of normalcy, Obasi said paying attention to lessons and regurgitating a year’s worth of knowledge during hours-long standardized tests could prove much more difficult for flood-affected students.

He said the brain’s ability to focus can be severely hampered after experiencing significant anxiety, especially for children and teens’ whose brains are still developing.

“It’s really difficult to assess a person’s capacity when they’re not 100 percent available to focus and attempt the task,” Obasi said. “Many things we measure in schools involve students having to focus. They have to have good spatial processing or cognitive abilities, and if you can’t focus, it’s going to be extremely difficult to do anything, let alone ace an important standardized test.”

Obasi said stress can cause a host of physical and mental ailments, from sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate in the short-term to addiction and diabetes in the long-term.

Exhaustion is a real concern, Obasi said, as many have issues falling asleep and staying asleep during times of significant stress. On top of that, anxiety can hamper the brain’s ability each morning to release cortisol, a hormone that helps people get out of bed and going, making such tasks exponentially more tiresome for students.

Then there are the constant distractions – random triggers that will remind students of the worst days of their lives, questions about where their family will live, uncertainty about where their next meal will come from.

There are so many challenges facing HISD this year, from schools that aren’t ready to open and in some cases may never be to teachers who are still dealing with their own damaged houses and cars to students who have been displaced to points unknown. Indeed, quite a few of these students are now homeless, for who knows how long.

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that about 35,000 to 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes, some indefinitely.

Jeanne Stamp, the office’s director, said some families have relocated to Dallas and San Antonio but Houston is sure to see their already large number of homeless children balloon.

Federal protections require schools to immediately enroll children who have lost their regular homes, including those affected by a natural disaster.

That federal law allows homeless children to either stay in the school they were attending or enroll in the school in the neighborhood where they are currently staying, with transportation costs divided equally between the two districts if there’s a funding dispute.

The Texas “Third Choice” law goes even further, allowing homeless students the choice to enroll in any school district in the state, regardless of their school of origin or the location of the place where they are staying.

But the state law doesn’t require transportation to be provided, something Michael Santos, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, urged schools to offer in order to comply with the over-arching federal law.

“That falls under the obligation to remove barriers for the student attending school,” Santos said. “Transportation is controversial and it’s expensive.”

For Houston, the transportation issue could be even more heightened as many displaced families are likely to have to commute across the sprawling metro area, between where they want to go to school and where they’re stuck sleeping at night.

“Sometimes public bus passes help get kids to school. Sometimes parents have a vehicle but don’t have funds for gas,” Stamp said. “It is a very costly piece of the service but it’s a necessarily piece of the service.”

Hey, you know what one of the ancillary effects of HISD going into recapture was? They lost state funding for transportation. Hell of a time for that to happen, with all these students needing to travel farther to go to school, right? Layered on top of all that is the takeover threat from the TEA if certain campuses don’t show sufficient improvement on the STAAR test. I don’t know how the state can enforce that threat in good conscience this year given the extreme exogenous circumstances HISD must deal with, but as yet there’s been no discussion, let alone decisions, to that effect.

The point is that this was going to be a tough year for HISD no matter what, but before Harvey hit you could see a path to holding off the TEA from doing anything undesirable. It’s a lot harder to see such a path now. And as bad as HISD has it, some others have it worse. This is why some folks are petitioning for a halt to STAAR testing for the ISDs affected by Harvey. I don’t think that will get anywhere, and to be honest I’m not sure that it should. But I do know that the TEA and the Lege need to take a far more measured approach to accountability this year. No one – no student, no school, no district – should be penalized for having to go through all this.

New school grading system looks pretty harsh

Brace yourselves.

Schools in poor neighborhoods overwhelmingly received the worst grades under Texas’ new rating system — but even typically high-performing districts got C’s and D’s, according to scores that will be released Friday.

The “what if” grades show how schools and districts could fare in the new A-F system, which won’t take effect until 2018.

The plan to give public schools letter grades has infuriated educators across the state. As of Thursday, 152 districts have adopted resolutions opposing it. Critics say the approach is over-simplistic and stigmatizes poor schools.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath — who cautions that the new system is a work in progress — has said grades will give families a better understanding of how their schools are doing while crediting schools for the progress they are making.

All North Texas districts meet current state standards according to results released this summer. But 11 would have earned an F in at least one of four categories in the new grading system, including Mesquite, Wylie, Farmersville, Lancaster and Cedar Hill. Highland Park, Plano, Allen and McKinney each got at least one C.

“That’s amazing when you consider that they all met the standard two weeks ago and the scores, the data, haven’t changed,” Mesquite Superintendent David Vroonland said. Both the new and old system are largely based on the same STAAR results and other data.

Dallas ISD got a D in student performance and B’s in three other categories.

DeSoto got an F in student performance and in preparing kids for life after high school.

“We continue to wait for more information from TEA on the methodology of the new system, however, this continued attack on public schools, your DeSoto public schools, is an attack on the foundation of our country,” superintendent David Harris said in a prepared statement on Thursday.

“The government ‘ranking’ and comparing schools, feeds the agenda of those claiming our schools are failing and vouchers are the answer. Meanwhile, public schools tend to be underfunded and over mandated by the state and federal governments.”

The Legislature approved the grading system during the 2015 session. Other states, including Oklahoma and West Virginia, have similar accountability measures. But Virginia killed its plan to give letter grades over concerns of fairness to schools.

The Texas Education Agency is releasing grades in four areas: how well students performed on state tests; how much progress students made from year to year on those tests, how well schools are closing the gaps between poor children and their peers; and students’ college or career readiness. Next year, a fifth measure will allow schools to grade themselves on student and community engagement. Schools and districts will also receive an overall grade.

Critics of the system say it doesn’t actually reflect what’s going on in classrooms and will only stigmatize schools in poor neighborhoods that will have a harder time meeting standards. Those schools already struggle to recruit and keep talented teachers and engaged families.

See here for a bit of background. The A-F grading system was part of a larger bill authored by outgoing Education Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock. It generated controversy at the time, but as is sometimes the case when the end of the session is approaching and things need to get done, it was passed in spite of the concerns about that part of the bill. The story above is from the Dallas Morning News, but similar stories are coming in from all over the state.

Various Central Texas districts, including Austin, Leander, Hays, Georgetown, Bastrop, Manor, Elgin, San Marcos, Hutto, Dripping Springs and Elgin received unacceptable grades of Ds and Fs in certain categories, according to a report sent to the Texas Legislature last week that was obtained by the American-Statesman.

Even some nationally ranked campuses, including Round Rock’s Westwood High School and Eanes’ Westlake High, didn’t muster straight As under the new system, and schools that received top marks from the state just a few months ago received unacceptable scores. The grades are meant to give districts and the public a glimpse of how the new system will work when it is finalized next year, and are not official or punitive. The accountability ratings doled out in August still stand.

[…]

Austin school district Superintendent Paul Cruz said having an A through F system is confusing if it is not the same A through F system that people know and understand. Under this system, a school can have a 90 and still be failing, he said, and “that’s not the grading system we use in our schools.”

Blackshear Elementary, for example, is a national Blue Ribbon school, and has been recognized by the Texas Education Agency for the work it has done with a high concentration of students from low-income families. Yet it received an F under the postsecondary readiness category because of absenteeism, he said.

And of course, from here in Houston.

Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school system, earned B’s for closing achievement gaps and learning gains on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness. It earned a C for student achievement on the STAAR, and its lowest mark – a D – came in postsecondary readiness, a stumbling block for many Texas schools.

Educators argue that this new system relies too much on standardized tests and fails to take into account the complexities of individual schools and districts, like whether their student body is predominantly poor or non-native English speakers.

“The real education experts are pretty united on this one. We see it doing more harm than good,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents 68,000 teachers and support staff.

[…]

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt lambasted the preliminary grades on Friday as an attack on public schools for political gain.

“Our legislators’ ‘ranking’ and comparing of public schools feeds the agenda of those claiming our public schools are failing and vouchers, tax credits, scholarships, etc. are the answer,” Hindt said. “Meanwhile, public schools are underfunded and overmandated by the state and federal governments. Our private school counterparts would never accept funding that tied them to the mandates the Legislature and the TEA place on our public schools – essentially eroding communities’ local control.”

The final system that will be used to calculate letter grades in 2018 is expected to include five domains. Friday’s tentative grades included just four categories, similar to those in the state’s current accountability system.

At least two Houston-area schools, including HISD’s Sterling High and Spring Branch ISD’s Sherwood Elementary, scored straight F’s in Friday’s preliminary grades despite having “met standard” in their official accountability rankings.

At least 78 Houston-area schools, including charters, earned D’s and F’s, even though they “met standard” in the current system. Of those, 12 schools and five districts got straight F’s on the preliminary letter grades but “met standard” in the current accountability system.

The two systems are not meant to be compared, said Lauren Callahan, a TEA spokeswoman.

“When you’re looking at the current system, you really don’t have a good idea as a parent whether your campus barely met standard or they are knocking it out of the park,” she said. “There is a lot more that goes through the A-F system than is in the pass-fail system.”

Still, the mismatched results baffled leaders at schools that earned F’s but still “met standard,” as was the case at Sherwood.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez has filed a bill to rescind the A-F grading system. I don’t think that will pass, but given the massive problems with the STAAR test, I do think some action will be taken, with a delay in implementation being the most likely possibility. As always, you should contact your legislators to let them know what you think about this. A statement from the TEA is here, and the Trib has more.

School district to join lawsuit over STAAR test

Interesting.

Ben Becker, the Houston father who helped organize a legal fight over last year’s STAAR exams, has repeatedly challenged superintendents over the last few months to join him in court to fight for their students.

Becker describes his group as a handful of Texas parents up against the state of Texas, backed by a legal team funded through a crowdfunding campaign. In a year when the STAAR exam went so horribly awry, and outraged so many school officials across the state, Becker says, “as parents [we] look around and wonder, where are the school districts?”

On Tuesday night, one school district is set to answer Becker’s call. Administrators in Marlin ISD, a rural district about 30 miles southeast of Waco, will ask the school board to join the lawsuit filed by Becker’s group in May.

“Marlin ISD will be the first to join this lawsuit as party plaintiffs,” Superintendent Michael Seabolt told Waco station KWTX on Friday, “and essentially that makes Marlin, as a school district, ground zero for state testing accountability reform.”

The stakes on last year’s STAAR exams were probably higher for Marlin ISD than any other district in the state. After four years of low ratings from the Texas Education Agency, the district faced possible closure if its students didn’t hit state goals for STAAR scores — and they didn’t.

Seabolt took over the district in July 2015 when Marlin ISD’s situation was already precarious. He and the district’s staff worked furiously to get the schools on track to meet the state’s targets, he told the Observer, so he’s been frustrated to see TEA sidestep the Legislature’s requirements for the test.

Seabolt agrees with the parents’ complaint that TEA flouted a 2015 law that should have shortened the STAAR exams. Records obtained by Becker’s group show that hardly any of the tests were completed in the time frame required by law.

So if TEA goes ahead with plans to take over or close Marlin ISD, Seabolt wondered, “You’re gonna take that action based on illegal test scores?” He drew a comparison to the state’s low target for special education enrollment, which the Houston Chronicle showed this month has deprived thousands of students of services to which they’re entitled.

“Why is it that TEA gets to pick which laws it’ll do and which ones it won’t?” Seabolt asked.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seabolt asks a good question, for which I look forward to hearing the state’s response. And since he brought up the special education issue, I will note that as of yet, neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick has seen fit to comment on the issue. Too busy with other things, I guess. I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually.

STAAR test lawsuit survives motion to dismiss

On to trial.

After a group of parents sued the Texas Education Agency over the 2016 administration of STAAR exams, state lawyers argued this summer that the parents had no standing and asked the courts to drop the case.

This week, the first day of school for many Texas children, Travis County District Court Judge Stephen Yelenosky denied their request in a one-page order with no further explanation.

The decision, which comes after a recent hearing, means the lawsuit brought by parents from Houston, Wimberley, Austin and Orangefield — whose children were in the third, fifth and eighth grades last school year — will be able to proceed.

[…]

Education Commissioner Mike Morath, listed as the primary defendant in the suit, threw out all grade promotion consequences for fifth- and eighth-graders this year because of score delays under a new testing vendor, the filings note. They also say that students could have been advanced to the next grade by a graduation committee regardless of Morath’s decision, and that there are no such consequences for third-graders. The filing also says there is “no allegation any of the plaintiffs failed or were specifically harmed by the allegedly noncompliant test — or even that the length of the test affected the child’s performance in any way.”

But the parents would like to see all scores thrown out. Their lawyer Austin-area lawyer, Scott Placek, who hailed Monday’s decision as a “big victory,” said they will keep fighting until that happens.

“The judge said without qualifications they have the right to be there and they have the right to have their case heard and so we’re in the position now where the case can really go forward,” he said. “I think we’ll look to move the discovery expeditiously and get to trial as quickly as we can because kids are being impacted already as they head back to school.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the judge’s order. The plaintiffs’ crowdfunded group The Committee to Stop STAAR has two posts on its webpage concerning TEA reports that they say show the STAAR test was not administered in compliance with the law. This ought to get very interesting.

AG opposes parents in STAAR lawsuit

Interesting.

The Texas attorney general says parents suing to get the state to toss out student test scores lack standing and should have taken their complaints to the Texas Education Agency rather than a court.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office filed the response in Travis County District Court Monday, denying “each and every allegation” from parents who allege in a lawsuit that the TEA ignored state law that requires standardized tests for elementary and middle schoolers be short enough for students to finish is a specific period of time.

The Texas Education Agency and the attorney general are asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the parents lack standing, failed to exhaust administrative remedies and failed to state a “legally cognizable claim.”

“I am shocked and saddened that the TEA refuses to recognize my right to have a judge listen to my complaint, especially when the agency broke the law and is irreversibly damaging our schools in the process,” said Jennifer Rumsey, a parent and teacher who is one of four plaintiffs.”They have already treated our children and our teachers with great disrespect, and the thought that I should continue to trust them to resolve my issues is insulting.”

See here for the background. The STAAR test had its share of problems this year. It feels to me like the state is trying to downplay and excuse these problems rather than face up to them. I’m rooting for the parents to win this one. The Press has more.

STAAR screwups

From the Observer:

Texas’ standardized testing program wasn’t exactly popular before the 2015-2016 school year, but this year’s State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) has been an especially frustrating experience for Texas students, parents and school officials. New testing contractor Educational Testing Service, in the first year of a four-year, $280 million contract to administer the STAAR, has seemed overwhelmed by the task: It misdelivered tests, lost records of test answers, and took weeks longer than promised to deliver test scores. Meanwhile, new Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are under fire for how they’ve handled the STAAR so far, with critics saying they haven’t adequately recognized the magnitude of the problems schools faced — some of which, like missing student records and an unfinished website for teachers to access test data, were apparent even before the tests even arrived.

It can be tough to keep track of all that’s gone wrong, so here’s a blow-by-blow of the biggest problems schools faced with STAAR this year.

Click over and read the whole thing. I’d heard of some of these screwups, but not all of them. It’s impressive in its way. A lawsuit was filed last month to force the state to not use this year’s test results to rate students, something which TEA Commissioner Mike Morath is not willing to do so far. The Observer piece notes that Senate Education Chair Kel Seliger has said Texas shouldn’t pay ETS for its delivery of the STAAR test this year. Hard to argue with that, if you ask me. Anyway, it’s a mess and I’m sure we’ll be arguing about it next spring.

Lawsuit filed over STAAR exams

Interesting.

A backlash against this year’s STAAR exams escalated Monday when a group of parents sued the state in an attempt to keep schools from using 2016 test scores to rate students — including deciding whether students should advance to the next grade or attend summer school.

The lawsuit, filed against the Texas Education Agency in Travis County district court, argues that this year’s scores are invalid because the exams were not administered under parameters laid out in House Bill 743. The legislation, passed last year with bipartisan support, requires the state to design STAAR exams so that a majority of elementary and middle school students can complete them within a certain period of time (two hours for third-through-fifth-graders and three hours for sixth-through eighth-graders.)

The law was set to take effect during the 2015-16 school year, but the education agency — which did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article — has taken a phased-in compliance approach. Fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests administered this spring were revamped to comply with the law, but the rest of the exams were not.

“TEA will gather data during the spring 2016 administrations to determine how to adjust the remaining grades 3-8 assessments to meet the testing time requirements of HB 743,” according to the agency’s website. “The remaining redesigned grades 3-8 assessments will be administered beginning in spring 2017.”

“Despite knowing that the assessments did not comply with statute, and despite a lead time of over nine months to comply, the TEA failed and refused to develop assessments that comply with the statute,” according to Monday’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of four parents from Houston, Wimberley, Austin and Orangefield, who are members of a grassroots group called The Committee to Stop STAAR.

“As a result, approximately 2 [million] Texas students were administered illegal assessments. The results of these illegal assessments are now being used to enact punitive measures against students, teachers and schools across the state.”

I don’t know enough about this to have a comment on it, but as a parent of two kids who both took STAAR exams this year, it is of interest to me. There were definitely some screwups related to the administration of the STAAR test this year, and it would not have been unreasonable for the TEA to declare this year a wash. Whatever happens in court, I feel confident that the Lege will do further tweaks and revisions to the standardized test system, and that a significant number of people will not be happy about whatever they do. The Observer and the Press have more.

Once again to the Supreme Court for school finance

Like deja vu all over again, and again and again and…

BagOfMoney

The Texas Supreme Court is again faced with determining whether the state’s method of funding public schools is unconstitutional, the latest in a series of school finance challenges stretching back more than 30 years.

In oral arguments Tuesday, lawyers representing the state argued that the current system lives up to constitutional mandates that it provide a “general diffusion of knowledge” to public school students. Attorneys for the more than 600 school districts who sued the state said money cut from public education was never fully restored even as lawmakers instituted tougher standards on students.

“This is a case about who gets to decide and who sets education policy in the state. Our argument is simple: It’s the people’s representatives. It’s the Legislature,” Solicitor General Scott Keller said after the hearing. While the system isn’t perfect, he said, lawmakers rather than the courts should determine the future of school finance.

“The state’s interest here is (to) end this perpetual cycle of litigation,” Keller said.

I would certainly agree that the Lege has it within its power to fix this problem once and for all, or at least for longer than seven years at a time. The fact that we do keep coming back to the courts strongly suggests that they do a lousy job of it. There’s a reason why the conventional wisdom – backed by quite a bit of reality – is that the Lege only really addresses this when the Supreme Court orders them to do so. For a different perspective:

Richard Gray III, representing 443 school districts including Pflugerville and Hutto, said other statistics prove the state education system is falling short of its goals — including that only 38 percent of low-income students and English-language learners capable of earning a passing grade on entry-level college courses.

“I think that screams at you that this system is not doing what it desires to do,” Gray said.

Marisa Bono, representing school districts with high numbers of low-income students, said the state finance system “provides more advantages to students who already live in the most advantaged school districts.”

“Every year, the state delivers tens of thousands of young people into our economy who are wholly unprepared,” Bono said.

Arguing on behalf of large school districts, including Austin, Wallace Jefferson said the Legislature has failed to create a finance system that meets its goal of preparing high school students for college or a career.

“We believe we have proved that the system fails the Constitution because we have done the analytical work that the Legislature has failed to do,” said Jefferson, former chief justice of the court.

One hopes former Justice Jefferson knows how to get through to his erstwhile colleagues. We will get a decision when they’re damn good and ready, which for school finance cases usually means in a few months, so early-ish in 2016. Don’t worry, any special session will be for after the primaries. Trail Blazers and the Observer have more.

Supreme Court to hear school finance appeal

We near the end of the road. This road, anyway.

BagOfMoney

Shut out by lawmakers in their efforts to overhaul the state’s troubled education funding system, more than 600 school districts are now pinning their hopes for relief on the Texas Supreme Court.

The high court will hear arguments on the volatile issue of school finance Tuesday, once again taking up the question of whether the current funding system is unfair and inadequate.

It will be the seventh time in the last quarter-century that the court has been called on to settle a legal challenge over the way Texas funds the education of millions of children.

Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue last week, filing a brief that urges the justices to reverse the decision of now-retired state District Judge John Dietz of Travis County, who ruled for the districts last year. The governor argued that judges should not second-guess the Legislature’s decisions on education.

“Both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of responsible policymaking, the courts are not the appropriate forum for making decisions about statewide education policy,” Abbott said. “It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”

The Republican governor argued that the Legislature “substantially increased” funding for public schools earlier this year. The plaintiff school districts note that the actual increases amount to about 1 percent a year for the past five years — less than the rate of inflation.

And those small hikes came after lawmakers enacted record funding cuts in 2011 to help offset a massive shortfall in state revenue without raising taxes.

Yeah, about that

Three years later, as the state prepares to argue an appeal before the Texas Supreme Court, a Texas Tribune analysis shows that schools still are grappling with the fallout from the lean budget times even as the Legislature has restored a majority of the cuts.

An examination by the Tribune found:

  • Public school staffing remains lower than it was before the cuts, with at least 3,700 fewer teachers in regular, non-charter districts last school year, according to state data. That’s as student enrollment in those schools grew by more than 220,000.
  • The state still is approving far more waivers allowing elementary schools to exceed a 22-student class size limit established in 1984. Last year, the total number of campuses requesting waivers exceeded 2,100, according to state data; In the five school years leading up to the 2011 budget cuts, it never topped 1,375.
  • Scores on the high-stakes STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exam remain flat — with success rates hovering in the 70th percentile — even though students have now had several years to get used to the more difficult testing regime, implemented in early 2012.
  • Per-student state funding has recovered to pre-2011 levels for some districts, but many still are behind. Under the two-year budget state lawmakers passed this year, lawmakers have restored more than 90 percent of what they cut four years ago, yet nearly 30 percent of school districts will receive less per-student funding from the state than they did before the reductions, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board.

And all that is happening as enrollment continues to grow, largely with kids who are economically disadvantaged, and standards continue to be raised by the Legislature. (Both of those links contain a lot more, so go read them in full.) The state’s response to the lawsuit is basically “hey, money isn’t everything, they should, like, work smarter or something”. Which unfortunately may be good enough for the Supreme Court, but we’ll see. We should have a decision in early 2016, thus allowing any special session (if one is needed) to take place after the primaries. The Rivard Report and Better Texas Blog have more.

HISD’s test scores

Not so good. Needs to be better.

Houston ISD high school students continue to struggle with reading and writing, passing state exams at significantly lower rates than the state average, new results show.

The district’s scores in algebra, biology and U.S. history also dipped a couple of points from last year, at a slightly sharper rate than did others across Texas.

HISD’s high school results are similar to the previously released elementary and middle school scores, which mostly declined or remained flat.

Superintendent Terry Grier, in a statement issued Friday, applauded a more promising measure: an increase in the percentage of students who answered more questions correctly this year than last on the high school exams – meeting the tougher bar that the state plans to enforce in coming years.

That uptick, Grier said, “shows that our teachers and administrators are committed to making sure students are on track to graduate.”

[…]

On the English I [STAAR] test, which covers reading and writing, HISD’s passing rate was 58 percent this year, compared with the state’s 71 percent. HISD had a three-point drop from 2014, while students statewide declined by one point.

HISD’s passing rate on the algebra test, which some eighth-graders take, was 79 percent, down from 82 percent last year. The state rate dropped one point to 85 percent.

The passing rates include only students taking the exams for the first time in spring 2015 and spring 2014. Students who failed can retake the tests.

HISD scored between one and five points lower than Dallas ISD in algebra, biology and U.S. history this year. The districts’ passing rates were the same for English I, and HISD fared better by one point in English II.

Dallas ISD is the state’s second-largest district behind HISD. Both serve significant concentrations of low-income students and those still learning English, who traditionally lag academically.

Across Texas, scores have been relatively flat since the 2012 rollout of the STAAR, which was designed to be tougher than the old testing regime.

It’s a tough problem, and it won’t get any easier with the forthcoming toughening of standards in the STAAR test. I’m sure this subject will be discussed at length in Terry Grier’s final contract year. Really, though, we need to deal with this at the state level. We can toughen standards, we can change the grading system for schools and school districts, we can come up with all kinds of plans for how to deal with failing schools and school districts, but when are we going to give them the tools and resources they need to not fail in the first place?