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Lawsuit filed over teacher evaluation system

A new front is opened in the war on standardized testing.

Seven HISD teachers and their union are suing the school district to try to end job evaluations tied to students’ test scores, arguing the method is arbitrary, unfair and in violation of their due-process rights.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court late Wednesday, could have far-reaching implications as more districts and states use student test data to grade teachers.

The Houston case focuses on the district’s use of a specific, privately developed statistical model that analzes test data to try to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness.

In some cases, according to the lawsuit, teachers see their scores fluctuate from year to year, while other results are based on tests not aligned to the state curriculum. The lawsuit also argues that all teachers aren’t treated equally, and they can’t adequately challenge their ratings because the formula is too opaque.

For example, the lawsuit says, Andy Dewey, a social studies teacher at Carnegie Vanguard High School, received such high scores in 2012 that he qualified for the district’s top performance bonus; his results the next year dropped significantly.

“Mr. Dewey went from being deemed one of the highest performing teachers in HISD to one making ‘no detectable difference’ for his students,” the lawsuit said.

Dewey has told the Houston Chronicle previously that he does not understand why his scores vary when he and his fellow social studies teachers — they are rated as a team — don’t change their instruction significantly from year to year.

[…]

The system at the center of the lawsuit generally is called “value added.” It uses complex statistics to estimate how well students should perform on standardized tests based on their own past performance. Teachers whose students score better than expected get the best ratings, whether or not the students passed the test.

To do the analysis, HISD contracts with a North Carolina company, whose model is called the Education Value-Added Assessment System, or EVAAS.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here, the press release from the AFT is here, and some background is here. The Texas AFT has an illustration of the EVAAS formula here. I am not opposed in theory to the idea of value-added evaluations. This is basically what the sabermetric revolution in sports has been all about, coming up with ways to measure performance and determine the value of players in various sports. In sports, however, the relationship between the various metrics – runs created, points per possession, DVOA, etc – has been demonstrably linked to the teams’s actual on-field performance. They also show what sort of things a given player needs to do in order to be valuable. Finally, there are multiple systems that have been created to measure value, and they have risen or fallen based on their usefulness and accuracy. I don’t know how much any of this is true for EVAAS. I do know that teachers should have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and they should have some input on their evaluation. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes. The Trib and K-12 Zone have more.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

No testing waiver

Sorry, kids.

The federal government has denied the state’s request to waive No Child Left Behind testing requirements for students in elementary and middle school, the Texas Education Agency announced Monday.

If the waiver had been granted, students who excel on state reading and math exams in the third and fifth grades would have been allowed to skip exams in those subjects in the fourth, sixth and seventh grades because of a state law passed this year, House Bill 866, by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble. All students would be tested on math in the third and fifth grades; on reading in the third, fifth and eighth grades.

In a Sept. 6 letter, Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle told TEA commissioner Michael Williams that the federal education department would not exercise its authory to waive No Child Left Behind provisions that require Texas and other states to test public school students in grades three through eight annually in reading and math and at least once in science in elementary and middle school.

She wrote that annual assessment was “critical to holding schools and LEAs [local education agencies] accountable for improving the achievement of all students.”

See here for the background, here for the TEA press release, and here for the original waiver request. I continue to think this idea has merit and I hope it isn’t the final word, but for now it’s where we are. Texpatriate has more.

The new accountability standards

Here’s the TEA press release about the school accountability ratings for 2013, which came out on Thursday.

The Texas Education Agency today released the 2013 state accountability system ratings for more than 1,200 school districts and charters, and more than 8,500 campuses. The ratings reveal that almost 93 percent of school districts and charters across Texas have achieved the rating of Met Standard.

Districts, campuses and charters receive one of three ratings under the new accountability system: Met Standard;  Met Alternative Standard;  or Improvement Required. School district ratings (including charter operators) by category in 2013 are as follows:

RATING DISTRICT CHARTER TOTAL PERCENT
Met Standard/Alternative 975 161 1,136 92.5%
Met Standard 975 126 1,101 89.7%
Met Alternative Standard N/A 35 35 2.9%
Improvement Required 50 30 80 6.5%
Not Rated 1 11 12 1.0%
TOTAL 1,026 202 1,228 100.0%

“A transition to a new accountability system comes with a great deal of uncertainty,” said Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. “The 2013 ratings confirm that the vast majority of districts and campuses are meeting the state’s standards and providing a quality education for our students.”

The 2013 ratings are based on a revised system that uses various indicators to provide greater detail on the performance of a district or charter and each individual campus throughout the state. The performance index framework includes four areas:

  • Student Achievement – Represents a snapshot of performance across all subjects, on both general and alternative assessments, at an established performance standard.
    (All Students)
  • Student Progress – Provides an opportunity for diverse campuses to show improvements made independent of overall achievement levels. Growth is evaluated by subject and student group.
    (All Students; Student Groups by Race/Ethnicity; English Language Learners; Special Education)
  • Closing Performance Gaps – Emphasizes improving academic achievement of the economically disadvantaged student group and the lowest performing race/ethnicity student groups at each campus or district.
    (All Economically Disadvantaged Students; Student Groups by Race/Ethnicity)
  • Postsecondary Readiness – Includes measures of high school completion, and beginning in 2014, State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR®) performance at the postsecondary readiness standard.
    (All Students; Student Groups by Race/Ethnicity; English Language Learners; Special Education)

Districts and campuses with students in Grade 9 or above must meet targets on all four indexes. Districts and campuses with students in Grade 8 or lower must meet targets on the first three indexes (excluding Postsecondary Readiness).

Under the 2013 state accountability system, campus ratings (including charter campuses) by category and school type are as follows:

RATING ELEM MIDDLE HS MULTI TOTAL PERCENT
Met Standard/Alternative 4,062 1,511 1,338 295 7,206 84.2%
Met Standard 4,062 1,504 1,156 264 6,986 81.7%
Met Alternative Standard N/A 7 182 31 220 2.6%
Improvement Required 477 133 129 39 778 9.1%
Not Rated 73 62 280 156 571 6.7%
TOTAL 4,612 1,706 1,747 490 8,555 100.0%

For eligible campuses that achieve the rating of Met Standard, distinction designations in the following areas have also been assigned: Top 25 Percent Student Progress; Academic Achievement in Reading/English language arts; and Academic Achievement in Mathematics.

Approximately 3,600 campuses that achieved the Met Standard rating earned some type of distinction. More than 750 campuses earned distinctions in all three potential areas. These distinction designations are based on campus performance in relation to a comparison group of campuses. Distinctions earned (by campus type) in 2013 are as follows:

DISTINCTION(S) EARNED ELEM MIDDLE HS MULTI TOTAL
Top 25% Progress & Read/ELA & Math* 385 182 152 40 759
Top 25 % Progress 326 94 117 16 553
Top 25% Progress & Reading/ELA 186 88 34 11 319
Top 25% Progress & Math 209 93 48 10 360
Reading/ELA 547 183 63 28 821
Reading/ELA & Mathematics 164 81 147 32 424
Mathematics 133 122 84 24 363

* Denotes campus received Met Standard rating plus all three possible distinctions under the 2013 state accountability system.

“Under the new accountability system, these designations recognize outstanding work at the campus level that would not be acknowledged in previous years,” said Commissioner Williams. “Despite the many positive numbers, I am confident school leaders across our state share my concern for the number of campuses where improvement is still required, especially at the elementary level. If we can target our efforts in those grade levels today, the state will see improvements for all students in the years ahead.”

Commissioner Williams noted that while the four components of the new accountability system are in place, future adjustments will be made based on district and stakeholder feedback. In addition, House Bill 5 (passed by the 83rd Texas Legislature) requires stronger measures of postsecondary readiness to be added to the system

To view the 2013 state accountability ratings for districts, charters and campuses, visit the Texas Education Agency web site at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/account/2013/index.html.

That last link will take you to the accountability system overview page, which has all the explanations and summaries of the numbers. All district and individual campus ratings can be found here. HISD schools begin on page 80. As the Chron reported, HISD has some work to do.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

More than 20 percent of campuses in the Houston Independent School District failed to meet the state’s tougher academic standards this year, according to data released Thursday.

Across Texas, 10 percent of schools fell short in the new rating system, which for the first time holds them accountable for results on the state’s more challenging standardized exams that launched last year.

Most districts in the Houston region fared well. Every campus in Cypress-Fairbanks, the second-largest local district, met the standards. In Fort Bend ISD, which ranks next in size, one school fell short.

Aldine ISD struggled, with 27 percent of its schools missing the mark.

[…]

In HISD, the largest district in Texas, 58 of the 268 rated campuses – or 21.6 percent – received the “improvement required” label.

Unlike last year, HISD fared worse than the Dallas school district, which has similar demographics and ranks second in size. About 15 percent of the Dallas campuses missed the standards.

Superintendent Terry Grier said he was pleased that most schools did well on a measure that looks at test scores across all subjects and grade levels.

“At the same time,” Grier said in a statement, “these ratings clearly highlight areas where we must focus our resources to ensure every student in every neighborhood is prepared to succeed in college and in the workforce.”

Half of the 20 schools in Grier’s signature reform program, Apollo, earned the “met standard” rating. The multimillion-dollar effort, which started three years ago, includes specially hired tutors and increased class time.

All of the schools in North Forest ISD missed the standards, except for one run by a charter school.

HISD’s press release on the accountability standards is here. One point to note:

HISD campus results for each of the four indexes were:

Student achievement: 251 out of 268 rated schools (94 percent) met standard
Student progress: 235 out of 263 rated schools (89 percent) met standard
Closing performance gaps: 232 out of 265 rated schools (88 percent) met standard
Postsecondary readiness: 42 out of 46 rated schools (91 percent) met standard

That sounds a little better than “21.6 percent of HISD campuses failed to meet the standard”. Not meeting any one of the four standards gets you the “improvement required” label. What that suggests is that most of the HISD schools that were classified as “improvement required” met at least one of the three or four indexes. A look through the HISD schools on the master list confirms this – only Wheatley High School and Hartsfield Elementary School struck out completely. That may make bringing them up to standard a little easier. On the other hand, four of the eight non-charter North Forest schools (see page 126) rated Needs Improvement in each index. HISD definitely has its work cut out for it there. Everyone is still figuring out what the new system means, and it will get tougher over time, but HISD has budgeted money to improve the schools that failed to satisfy one or more index. We’ll see how much progress they make next year.

Don’t count on that federal testing waiver

It could happen, but don’t expect your high-scoring kid to spend less time taking tests going forward.

A plan to reduce testing for higher-performing elementary and middle school students was one of the feel-good bills of the 2013 legislative session. But several experts believe it will never see the light of day in Texas schools.

The measure was passed with much fanfare, as parent groups and school districts urged lawmakers to scale back high-stakes testing across the board.

Legislators responded by sharply reducing the number of tests high school students must pass to graduate, from 15 to five exams. That measure will take effect.

But a follow-up bill, to exempt high achievers in lower grades from math and reading tests in grades four, six and seven, needs a sign-off from the federal government.

That’s unlikely, based on the federal agency’s record in enforcing the No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires annual testing in reading and writing of all public school students in grades three through eight.

But no state has been able to get that requirement eased, even as dozens have gotten waivers from other parts of the law since former President George W. Bush signed it in 2001.

“I have not seen a waiver granted on that particular requirement,” said Elaine Quisenberry, a spokeswoman for the education department, referring to the testing mandate.

Diane Rentner, deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, agreed.

“That has never been done, to my knowledge,” she said. “It would seem to violate the mandate that all students in those grades are to be tested every year under No Child Left Behind.”

[…]

In addition to the fact that no state has been exempted from the testing requirement, Texas is also handicapped by its record of resistance to the Education Department’s initiatives under Duncan.

And the law could have a major unintended consequence. If high-performing students could skip the STAAR in three grades, some fear their schools’ state and federal annual performance ratings could suffer.

See here for the background. Amused as I am by the irony of it all, this is one place where I’d support pushing back against the federal requirement. Exempting the students who are near-certainties to pass makes sense, and would allow schools to focus more time and effort on the students that need the most help. That needs to be a debate in Washington, but there’s no reason it can’t start someplace else. Too bad Texas doesn’t have much credibility on that score. We’ll see how the feds respond and we’ll go from there.

Testing waiver sought

It’s a follow up for a bill passed during the regular legislative session.

In a letter sent [last] week to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Education Commissioner Michael Williams is seeking clarification on whether the federal agency has the authority to grant a waiver on the No Child Left Behind Act, formally called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The waiver request would allow the state to comply with House Bill 866, which would allow high-performing elementary and middle school students to skip reading and math tests if they had aced them in previous years.

[…]

Williams’ letter said the bill would allow students ahead of the curve to “focus their time and energy on learning new material and not focusing every year on a test where there is a high likelihood that they would demonstrate success.”

HB 866 won’t take effect this year and the letter is not an official request for a waiver, agency officials said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I figure this is likely to be a formality, but we’ll see how it plays out.

Perry signs HB5, adds transportation to the special session

There had been some buzz about a possible veto, but in the end this was to be expected.

When Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 5 on Monday, he ended weeks of speculation that he might veto the high-profile education legislation because of concerns that it would weaken high school graduation standards.

The bill, by House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, drops the number of state standardized tests high school students must take to graduate and changes the courses needed to earn a diploma. It passed both chambers unanimously, with many lawmakers hailing the bill as one of the session’s most important, after months of lengthy committee hearings and contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations.

As Perry signed HB 5 with Aycock and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, by his side, the governor said the measure reflected an “appropriate balance between a need for rigorous academics and flexibility” and had “come a long way” to address the concerns of its critics, which include the Texas Association of Business and the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“Texas refuses to dilute our academic standards in any way because they are working,” he said, citing the state’s rising graduation rates and test scores.

Actually, STAAR scores were flat, and high schoolers continued to have trouble with the end of course exams. And there were definitely some people who thought that HB5 did dilute standards, including TEA Commissioner Michael Williams and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes. Be that as it may, HB5 did do a number of good things, and we’ll just have to see what happens with the graduation requirements. As I’ve said before, I fully expect this matter to be revisited by the Lege again and again. Texas Politics has more.

Meanwhile, the scope of the special session has been expanded, though thankfully not for anything bad.

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday added transportation funding to the agenda of the special session.

In his directive, Perry asked the Legislature to consider the “funding of transportation infrastructure projects” during the 30-day session, which began late last month.

“Texas’ growing economy and population demand that we take action to address the growing pressure on the transportation network across the state,” Perry said in a statement. “As we enjoy the benefits of a booming economy, we have to build and maintain the roads to ensure we sustain both our economic success and our quality of life.”

Not clear when the Lege will get around to this, since the House stands adjourned till Monday the 17th. Also not clear why Perry violated his previous dictum about waiting till redistricting was done before doing anything else. But that’s Rick Perry for you.

Even before Perry added transportation to the call, lawmakers had been filing road funding bills with the hope that he would. For his part, Perry has been advocating for 100-year bonds to finance transportation infrastructure, arguing the state should take advantage of historically low interest rates.

But a large contingent of Republicans remains adamantly opposed to TxDOT assuming any more debt. Some lawmakers want to tap the Rainy Day Fund for transportation funds, but conservatives have already objected to using the account for water projects and ending accounting tricks so it’s unclear if that will re-emerge during the special session.

Perry himself added to the problem during the regular session when he shot down the idea of even a modest increase in the vehicle registration fee as a way to help fund transportation. Perry also said he’d only add items that had consensus and thus would be easy enough to pass, and it’s not clear that this applies to transportation. But other than that, it’s a great idea. I’ll be happy if the Lege can actually get something done on this, but I’m not counting on it.

Pushing for the Governor to sign HB5

While a lot of big ticket items were addressed by the Legislature during the regular session, not all of those bills have been signed into law yet. Among them are the big education reform bills, and proponents of fewer standardized tests are urging Rick Perry to sign them.

Six organizations representing a statewide coalition of advocates in favor of reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing sent a joint letter to Gov. Rick Perry Monday morning urging him to sign House Bill 5 — the omnibus bill that would drastically reduce the number of state exams students must take and overhaul curriculum requirements for high school students.

The letter calls on Perry to sign HB 5 as soon as possible, stating the delay is costing schools money and hurting students. The letter also notes that 123,000 Texas high school students failed at least one state test last year and that early reports from several school districts “indicate that the number of students failing at least one test is likely to double.”

“Parents, teachers, education support staff and, most importantly, current ninth and tenth grade students across Texas are confused and unsure of their high school future,” the letter states.

Representatives from Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and the Texas Association of School Administrators both signed the letter.

Many districts have started to plan for summer school, which includes remediation for students that failed the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test. Remediation may be unnecessary if students failed a test no longer required under HB 5. Instead of the 15 tests students are currently required to pass, HB 5 requires high school students to pass end-of-course exams in Algebra I, Biology, U.S. History, English I and English II.

You can see a copy of the letter here.The Texas PTA also sent out a message asking its members to call Perry’s office in support of signing the bills. I haven’t seen any indication that Perry might veto any of these bills, but the DMN’s William McKenzie is arguing that he should.

For several policy reasons, he should veto HB 5, HB 866 and HB 2824. Those are the most important education bills coming to his desk.

HB 5 would reduce from 15 to five the number of high school end-of-course exams students must take. The proposal also would make it easier to graduate without the current four years of math, science, social studies and English. HB 866 would allow some students to skip annual testing in reading and math in some grades. HB 2824 would allow some districts to no longer give some of the state’s tests in grades three through eight.

Being the politician that he is, my hunch is Perry does not veto HB 5 outright. It is the main anti-testing bill. It has passionate support from suburban parents, some of whom urged him Monday to sign the measure. They also are key voters, and I don’t see him crossing them completely on such a visceral issue.

But he could veto HB 5 on narrow grounds, such as requiring legislators to revisit in special session the type of tests HB 5 reduces. He could send it back with guidelines for requiring fewer tests but making sure those few tests include state exams in key subjects.

For example, he could request that HB 5 require end-of-course tests in Algebra II and English III. They matter because they are seen as good predictors of a student’s readiness to do college work.

He also could send it back with instructions about improving applied math and science courses in high school. HB 5 would allow math and science courses that are aimed at trade jobs. Perry could say let’s make sure Texas has the best type of applied math and science courses in the nation.

HB 866 and HB 2824 are different matters. Perry has plenty of room to veto them outright.

HB 866 would require the governor to ask Washington for a waiver from testing in reading and math in grades three through eight. Testing in those grades is the backbone of No Child Left Behind. Despite that law’s bad press, the Obama administration has never let up on testing in those subjects in those grades.

Why should states let up on testing students in reading and math in elementary and middle school?

Don’t most parents want to know whether their kids are advancing in reading and math year over year? Don’t they want to receive each year the kind of detailed information that the state provides parents about their children’s work on STAAR tests? That includes their high-achieving children, whom HB 866 would exempt from some annual reading and math tests in grades three through eight.

McKenzie is now joined in his desire to see HB5 vetoed by the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

In this special session, the Legislature can fix House Bill 5. Here’s how:

• Reduce graduation testing by at least half. Continue to expect students to demonstrate knowledge at least on par with TAKS to graduate. If the Legislature doesn’t scrap end-of-course testing altogether and return to the TAKS, they should at least choose the six tests which cover the same content: algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, physics, and English 11/writing.

• Continue to place students on an internationally competitive course of study. In House Bill 5, this would be either an endorsement or the distinguished course of study. Continue to ensure parents have a major say in the decision made about their child’s graduation plan.

• Ensure each endorsement requires students to learn content in physics and algebra II or statistics (applied or traditional). Manufacturing is built on these skills.

• Continue to keep all incentives like college scholarships, top 10 percent automatic admission and university admission aligned to student completion of that competitive course of study.

• Ensure innovative courses which teach traditional content in a hands-on way first receive approval from Texas’ Education commissioner or the State Board of Education to ensure that, if the family moves, credits transfer with the child.

• Fund the state to train every high school counselor thoroughly on the raft of new options, graduation plans, seals and college eligibility requirements.

This approach reduces testing, reduces mandates, increases flexibility, keeps the system simple but doesn’t lower expectations.

I blogged about HB866 before, and I disagree with McKenzie on this. I think if there’s one place you can dial back on testing, it’s with the students that have already demonstrated a clear grasp of the material. I have mixed feelings about HB5, and I don’t know anything about HB2824. I don’t know how likely a veto of any of these are, but I do know that Sen. Dan Patrick sponsored HB5 and co-sponsored HB866, and I have a hard time believing Perry would stab him in the back like that. Be that as it may, Perry has till June 16 to decide on all the unsigned bills, so to whatever extent you think you can influence his opinion, now is the time to contact his office and let them know how you feel about this legislation.

So where does the school finance lawsuit stand?

Though Judge John Dietz issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit back in February, he still hasn’t written his full decision yet. That’s because he wanted to see what the Legislature did this session, so he could take it into account in his opinion. Well, the session is over and barring a veto or two, we know what we’ve gotten. How will that affect what Judge Dietz has to say? Probably not that much.

[W]ill a $3.4 billion increase in funding and a sharp reduction in high-stakes testing be enough to sway Dietz and ultimately the Texas Supreme Court?

Closing the chasm between districts may help with the issue of equity. The second issue, adequacy, is hotly contested, as education groups and others note that funding is, at best, where it was four years ago. And lawmakers did little to address the third major component of the case, the ruling that districts are locked into what is essentially an illegal statewide property tax.

Legislative leaders are nonetheless optimistic, while the plaintiff school districts see only a small impact.

“This should influence the final decision that Judge Dietz is going to write,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “With the combination of the reduction in STAAR testing and this infusion of cash into our schools, I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue. At the least, it could mean that the state may want to ask to reopen the case.”

In addition to the extra $3.4 billion in the coming two years — which erased a good chunk of the $5.4 billion funding reduction over the past two years — lawmakers also slashed the number of high school end-of-course tests required for graduation.

Instead of 15 exams, students will now have to pass just five — and the tougher tests like chemistry, physics, Algebra II and English III have been jettisoned. The testing requirements were a prominent part of the lawsuit against the state.

Attorney David Thompson, who represents Dallas, Fort Worth and dozens of other school districts, said the Legislature fell far short of what is needed to get the state out of its legal troubles.

“What they did this session was very significant and commendable,” he said, referring to the funding boost. “But you have to remember, it doesn’t even restore what was cut in 2011, not to mention increased costs for schools in the two years since then.”

[…]

David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the plaintiff lawyers in the school finance case, said a major problem is that the state hasn’t responded to the needs of lower-income and limited-English students, who cost more to educate.

“All the money that was taken out of the system in 2011 still hasn’t been put back in,” such as funding for the remedial programs that targeted low-achieving students, he noted.

Hinojosa agreed that steering most of the new money to lower- and medium-wealth school districts helps the state’s position on equal funding.

“This is the first time I have seen the Legislature react to its school finance shortcomings without being ordered to do it by the Supreme Court,” said Hinojosa, a veteran of two long-running school finance court fights in Texas.

Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, who proposed the original plan to eliminate funding gaps between districts, said the decision “will go a long way” in resolving the argument that the system is inequitable.

“Our lower-wealth districts will be getting a lot more and our higher-wealth districts won’t be getting much at all,” Deuell said. “That has been one of the primary issues in the lawsuit.”

But that still leaves the other major arguments. And in his initial ruling, Dietz seemed most concerned about schools not having enough money to properly educate all students and meet rigorous state standards.

The judge’s point was driven home in the National Education Association’s annual comparison of school spending this spring, which showed that Texas had slipped to 49th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in spending per pupil.

That’s a key point to consider. One of the plaintiffs’ arguments was that the Legislature had increased standards and curriculum requirements on school districts, but had not provided the means to pay for them. The Lege did restore some, though not all, of the funding they cut in 2011, but their response to the standards argument was to reduce the number of tests that students must take, though Rick Perry hasn’t signed those bills yet. Even if he does sign these bills, it’s an interesting question as to whether that was the better approach.

The state will get a chance to make that argument before Judge Dietz writes his ruling.

In a hearing in Dietz’s courtroom Wednesday, lawyers for both the districts and the state said that evidence should be updated following a legislative session in which Texas lawmakers made significant changes to public education policy. The judge asked all parties to return June 19 to present arguments over what the scope of those new hearings should be — including what issues they should cover and logistical questions, like limitations on discovery and other procedural rules.

Dietz warned lawyers against looking at the hearings as “a chance to clean up or make stronger” their arguments during the trial.

“I really think that the consideration is, was there a material change in the circumstances, was there a substantial change in circumstances by reason of” the most recent Legislature, he said.

[…]

On Wednesday, Dietz said he was still reviewing and making notes on a “densely packed,” 285-page written opinion, which he has not released and will once again be updated to include the results of the upcoming hearings.

After the hearing, Mark Trachtenberg, a lawyer for a group of school districts in the case, said he did not expect the legislative changes — one of which reduces the end-of-course exams that students must take to graduate — to substantially affect the judge’s ruling in favor of the school districts. He said new hearings were necessary to make sure that when the lawsuit reaches the state’s Supreme Court, justices there could issue a decision based on current circumstances.

Note that the briefing deadline is after the sign-or-veto deadline for Rick Perry; the fact that Perry may scotch the extra funding given to schools this year was brought up by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. My guess is that Judge Dietz will still opine that the Legislature has fallen short in many areas. Most school districts still have very little or no leeway in setting property tax rates. Equity is still an issue, and it’s hard to see how adequacy can have been achieved when funding levels are still down from four years ago. Dietz originally said that the Lege might need to come up with an addition $2000 per student per year. That number may be lower now after the regular session, but not by much. See here and here for some background, and EoW, the TSTA blog, and the Trib have more.

Testing and charter bills pass

A lot of stuff gets done at the last possible minute in the Legislature. The two big education bills were examples of this.

The session’s two biggest school reform bills, one from each chamber, have danced the House and Senate in the session’s closing days—a stalemate that broke Sunday night as both bills passed each chamber around the same time.

Members of the lower chamber began with their own House Bill 5, which reduces the required high school tests from 15 to 5, creates a new set of graduation plans for high schoolers, and lets the state rate its schools on an “A to F” scale. The final version of the bill is closer to the House’s proposal than the one passed by the Senate.

Its author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) urged a quick finish for one of the session’s centerpiece bills, and one that saw hours of debate on the House floor in March. “Let’s just vote it,” he said tonight.

Rep. Mark Strama—who voted against HB 5 when it passed the House—spoke in favor of the bill this time, devoting his final speech on the House floor to the proper role of testing in education policy. (He’s announced he won’t seek reelection.)

“HB 5 is an improvement over current law,” Strama said, but he defended the standardized testing movement of the last 20 years, crediting it with helping African-American and Hispanic students to close the “achievement gap” with Anglo students. ”The problem with testing in Texas was the stakes we had attached to those tests,” he said.

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he’d vote for the bill too, despite his concern that that it doesn’t go far enough to help “the kids that are going to be on the bottom, I don’t care which test you give. … If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 2, which would let the state approve around 100 new charter school operators in the next six years, had a less certain fate in the House, where charter expansion bills have died in the last two sessions.

[…]

That bill passed 105 to 41, with no votes from a handful of Republicans along with Democrats. The Senate passed SB 2 without debate, on a 28-3 vote.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. The Trib breaks down what’s in the bills:

HB 5

  • High school students would take a foundation curriculum of four English credits; three science, social studies and math credits; two foreign language credits; one fine art and one P.E. credit; and five elective credits. They would add a fourth science and math credit when they select one of five diploma “endorsements” in areas including science and technology, business and industry, and the humanities.
  • To qualify for automatic college admissions under the top 10 percent rule and state financial aid, students must take four science credits and algebra II must be among their four math credits.
  • The state will require five standardized tests in English I, English II, algebra I, biology and U.S. history. School districts will have the option of offering diagnostic exams in algebra II and English III that will not count toward their accountability rating.
  • Districts will get an A through F rating; campuses will remain under the existing exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable labels.

SB 2

  • The state cap on charter contracts will increase by about 15 a year to 305 by 2019.
  • Dropout recovery and charters created by a school district would not count toward that cap. High-performing charter schools from out of state would. Up to five charters focused on special needs students would not count toward the cap.
  • School boards would have the authority to vote in favor of converting low-performing campuses in their districts into charters.
  • The Texas Education Agency, not the State Board of Education, would oversee the charter approval, renewal and closure process.

Given the late changes and the broad scope of these bills, it’s going to take awhile to fully understand what they mean, and to uncover any hidden secrets in them. The Legislative Study Group gave a favorable recommendation to HB5 but an unfavorable recommendation to SB2. Their analyses are always a good starting point. For what it’s worth, I was inclined to support SB2 and I was uncomfortable with the removal of Algebra II from the recommended curriculum. What do you think about these bills?

Fewer tests in the future

If you’re tired of standardized tests, this will be good news for you.

Under House Bill 866 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, which passed the Senate on Tuesday night, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Senators approved an amendment on Tuesday night adding writing tests back in for fourth and seventh grades, meaning the House will have to sign off before the bill hits the governor’s desk.

Speaking to reporters after the legislation passed, Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, said that the governor was “very open-minded” about the bill when he and Huberty met with him earlier. The upper chamber approved the bill with only two no votes — Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

To avoid losing federal funding, the legislation would require state education officials to request an exemption under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires 14 exams in grades three through eight.

[…]

Another measure addressing testing in younger grades, HB 2836, also passed the upper chamber Tuesday. But not before the Senate made significant changes to it, including adding SB 1718 to it after the bill died earlier that day in the House. The bill, from Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Dallas, originally eliminated fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests and required exams in lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students can complete them within two hours. The Senate version instead orders a study of the state’s curriculum standards and limits the number of benchmark exams school districts can administer locally.

I had previously blogged about HB2836. Looks like the two bills started out as much the same before HB2836 got altered, though the latter now no longer contains SB1718. I suppose Huberty gets the advantage of seniority here. The basic idea of allowing students who tested well one year out of testing for the next was first floated by Scott Hochberg in 2011, and I think it’s sensible. We’ll see if Rick Perry agrees. In the meantime, several other education bills remain works in progress as time runs down. Texpatriate has more.

Senate passes amended HB5

The Senate has passed its version of House Bill 5, which makes sweeping changes to standardized testing and curriculum requirements for high school students.

Texas high school students would have new curriculum requirements under legislation unanimously passed by the Senate on Monday — but they won’t be the ones the House envisioned when it approved its version of the legislation more than a month ago.

The Senate version of House Bill 5, which the upper chamber reached consensus on after weeks of extensive negotiations that continued through Monday afternoon, still drops the number of required state exams for graduation from 15 to five in biology, U.S. history, algebra I, and English I and II. It would still allow students to complete diplomas in specialized areas or “endorsements,” like humanities, science and technology, and business and industry.

But it changes the courses that students must complete to graduate under those endorsements, most significantly requiring four years of math for all of them.

The legislation now goes to conference committee, where representatives from both chambers will meet to work out their differences.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said HB 5 provided the structure for “the most rigorous, most flexible” high school graduation plan in the country. He also emphasized the legislation’s commitment to reducing high-stakes testing, which he said had taken the “fun out of teaching.”

Many Senate Democrats, along with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, favored preserving the current “4×4” curriculum — which includes four years each in science, social studies, English and math — but adding more options for career skills and advanced math courses. Patrick pushed to keep the plan passed out of his committee, which has four years of English but drops to three years of science, math and social studies in certain endorsements to give students chances to take specialized courses.

The proposal that emerged from Senate negotiations, which Patrick called the “flex 4×4,” puts all students on track to completing four years of math and English, with algebra II as a requirement for all endorsements except the business and industry track. The advanced math course, which some education researchers say increases students’ chances at post-secondary success, would be required for automatic admission to state colleges under the top 10 percent rule and to apply for certain state scholarships.

Under the House version, students would opt into a college preparatory curriculum with the additional years of math, science and social studies. That plan has encountered criticism from groups like the Texas Association of Business, La Raza and the Education Trust, who believe it would reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for post-secondary education and result in fewer low-income and minority students heading to college.

Here’s HB5, and here’s what I wrote about the House passage of it. The main points of contention were about the algebra II requirement and whether the default endorsement was the most rigorous one or not – in other words, whether a student had to opt in or opt out. The person pushing the opt out path was Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and the Observer reports on her activities.

Under an amendment tacked on by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), students on the foundation plan must complete four years of science and four years of math with Algebra II to qualify for automatic admissions to state universities under the Top Ten Percent Rule.

That means some students who graduate with the career endorsement may not qualify for automatic admissions, depending on which math classes they choose. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who led Friday’s negotiations, introduced an amendment that would have required Algebra II for all students.

“I tell ya, I find it quite insulting,” Van de Putte said of people who insinuate that some students just can’t succeed in Algebra II, which is considered a college-ready indicator.

Van de Putte said her amendment would reduce the possibility of reverting to an old system that tended to steer minority students into career and technology fields instead of college—a concern that prompted groups like the National Council of La Raza to agitate against the bill. Van de Putte said today’s system already funnels minority students into the lower degree plan.

“I want to make sure with this amendment that we’re not failing our kids because we’re so afraid with failing ourselves,” Van de Putte said.

However, Van de Putte ultimately withdrew her amendment so lawmakers could discuss her idea in conference committee.

In a statement after the bill passed, she explained her lingering concerns with a graduation path that isn’t built for college readiness. ”I worry that some ninth-graders, especially from families without a history of higher education, won’t realize what they can achieve. I fear that choosing the minimum plan will lead to a minimum wage job,” she said.

Van de Putte also tried, unsuccessfully, to require multiple notifications to students reminding them that choosing the career endorsement may disqualify them from automatic college admissions. “If we’re going to let 15-year-olds decide what their endorsements are, we need to let them be fully informed,” Van de Putte said.

Several legislators from both parties said one notice would be enough, and Patrick raised his voice saying that he didn’t want blue collar work to be stigmatized.

Among Van de Putte’s successful amendments was an option for school districts to offer a seal of bi-literacy on qualifying students’ diplomas, and another protecting dropout recovery schools from being penalized for low test scores.

The Texas Association of Business, which continues to veer between being a force for good and a petulant bully, continues to be unhappy with the thrust of this legislation.

Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond criticized the Senate bill, saying the weaker requirements will “doom generations of students to a mediocre education and low-wage jobs.”

He noted that only about 25 percent of Texas high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

The requirements are “meant to increase that number and put in place [higher] standards,” he said.

The bill now goes to conference committee to get the differences worked out. I doubt what emerges will be any more to Bill Hammond’s liking than the Senate version is now, but perhaps the final bill will resemble the Senate version more than the House version. It’s mostly been parent groups like TAMSA that have pushed for limits on end of course exams, and they have proven to be a fairly loud voice in this process as well. I’m really not sure what to make of all of this. I do think we test too much, but I also think algebra II should be taught, and I’m a little concerned about weakening curriculum requirements. I have a hard time sorting out all the data on this. If there’s one thing I am sure of it’s that we will revisit this subject again in 2015, and probably 2017 and 2019 and who knows how many future sessions. I don’t think this will ever be anything but a work in progress.

More test tweaking

Seems reasonable.

Students in elementary and middle school would get a little testing relief under a House bill that passed overwhelmingly on a preliminary vote Monday.

Amid a backlash against state-mandated testing, the legislation eliminates writing exams in fourth and seventh grades.

It also aims to alleviate some of the stress- inducing elements of the remaining exams by trimming the length of the tests to a keep them within two hours in the earliest grades and three hours for sixth-grade and up.

“We’ve taken the time pressure off so your third grader is not going to be spending four hours on the test. And if they are a struggling learner, we don’t have the time pressure of the countdown clock making them even higher stress tests,” said state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell, who authored House Bill 2836.

[…]

The only state test not required by federal law will be in 8th-grade social studies, which covers early U.S. history.

For the remaining exams, the legislation aims to limit the subject matter that can be tested for high-stakes purposes so that teachers can go “more in depth rather than having to teach a mile wide and an inch deep,” Ratliff said.

That should help reduce the number of preparation tests that schools use, said state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, who worked closely with Ratliff on the legislation. Indeed, schools are limited to two benchmark tests under the legislation.

My third-grader just finished taking the STAAR exams, and she was pretty stressed about the whole thing. I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear there will be one less test next year. The House had previously passed a bill limiting the number of end of course exams in high school, reducing it from 15 to 5. I think this makes sense, but I strongly suspect we’re nowhere close to being done with this subject. I fully expect the number, content, and other aspects of standardized tests in Texas schools will be debated for many sessions to come. The Trib has more.

School stuff

Just a basic roundup of education-related stories, since there’s so much going on.

From the Trib, action in the House on testing in grade school.

Elementary and middle school students currently take a total of 17 state exams before high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, plus there are additional exams in science or writing or social studies, depending on the grade. At the urging of some parents and educators, several lawmakers have proposed either eliminating testing in lower grades altogether or to dropping the number of tests to as few as 10. To avoid the risk of losing federal funding, both proposals would require a waiver under No Child Left Behind’s accountability requirements.

[Rep. Bennett] Ratliff’s House Bill 2836 would address an issue specific to younger test-takers — the amount of time they must spend sitting still to complete their state exams, which now have four-hour time limits. Ratliff said that teachers, test developers and administrators told him that “four hours is just entirely too long for a third-, fourth-, fifth-grader to sit and concentrate and do their best work.”

His bill would require exams at lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students could complete them in two hours or less. It would also remove the time limit so that struggling students could take the rest of the day to complete the test if needed.

Ratliff’s bill would also would reduce the amount of testing in lower grades to the extent possible under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by eliminating writing exams in fourth and seventh grades and the social studies exam in eighth grade.

But for parents concerned about the effects of high-stakes testing on young children, that is not enough, said Susan Kellner, the vice president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a statewide grassroots organization.

“The issue is that No Child Left Behind requires 14 tests between the grades of three through eight, and really that limits what these bills can do,” she said.

Some lawmakers, like state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, are attempting to get around those requirements by passing laws that would require state education officials to request a waiver from the federal government.

Under House Bill 866, by Huberty, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Hubert’s bill is similar to one he co-authored last session with Rep. Scott Hochberg. It was a good idea then and it remains a good idea now. That hasn’t stopped Bill Hammond and the TAB from digging their heels in against it for reasons that are not clear to me. But come on, there is nothing about this that contravenes the goals of rigor and accountability. I do not get where TAB is coming from on this.

Also at the Trib, the TEA wants to change the accountability ratings to letter grades.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams told senators Tuesday that the state intends to move forward with developing an A through F public school accountability rating system that would take effect in 2014.

“With the engagement of hundreds of educators and stakeholders around the state providing advice and council to TEA during the past year with the development of the accountability system, it was recommended to me and I accepted the recommendation to move in that direction,” he said.

Williams said that although he had the authority to make the transition without enacting legislation, he did not want to formally approve the change without an opportunity to answer legislators’ questions.

Proponents of the A through F system, which include House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, say that its transparency helps engage parents in their community schools by making their performance easier to understand. A similar proposal overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5.

“It’s a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too,” Williams said.

I don’t feel strongly about this one way or the other. As long as the evaluations mean something and everyone understands what they mean, and knows what they need to do to move up, it’s fine by me.

Also in the Senate, a bit of a slap fight between Williams and Patrick.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told his fellow lawmakers Tuesday morning that he had read the newspaper editorials and comments suggesting that his graduation plan bill (SB3) lowers standards. He staunchly disagrees and wanted Education Commissioner Michael Williams to back him up. The committee chairman didn’t get the answer he sought.

“I just want to be on the record that we have not stepped back in rigor,” said Patrick, R-Houston.

“Allow me to respectfully disagree,” Williams countered.

Williams tried to elaborate, but Patrick interrupted, saying it’s the senator who gets to ask the questions.

Eventually given a chance to speak again, Williams said that the default graduation plan for high school students today requires them to take English III and Algebra II. The current default plan also requires four years each of English, math, science and social studies. All students are put on the default plan and need parental permission to drop to an easier plan.

Under Patrick’s bill, which has passed the Senate Education Committee, the default plan (called the foundation diploma) does not require Algebra II. It requires four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies. Students could choose to take a tougher path — called getting an endorsement — and then would have to take Algebra II.

Williams said he was particularly troubled that the proposed default plan is easier than current law. Patrick said Algebra II is losing its status as a “holy grail” course for colleges, but he offered a compromise to try to win over Williams. Patrick said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, planned to offer an amendment to SB3 that would require all students to start on the tougher “endorsement” route, with parental permission needed to drop down, similar to current law.

We saw this same fight play out in the House last week, with Rep. Mark Strama leading the fight to keep Algebra II as part of the default requirements for a diploma. He lost that fight, but it looks like it will be re-fought in the Senate. It will be very interesting to see what happens if the Senate bill keeps the Algebra II requirement. Should make for some boisterous times in the joint committee to reconcile the two bills.

And finally, here’s this week’s legislative update from Raise Your Hand Texas. They’re a good source for more of what’s going on in education legislation, so follow them in whatever fashion you prefer to keep up with this stuff.

House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements

This is a big deal.

Texas public high school students would face far fewer high-stakes exams and gain more freedom in choosing courses under a major education bill approved by the state House on Tuesday.

Hours of debate among lawmakers centered on whether the state was giving students much-needed flexibility or scaling back too far – eliminating an Algebra II class as a standard graduation requirement, for example.

The bill, which is similar to proposals in the Senate, says students would have to pass five end-of-course exams to graduate, down from 15. It also scraps the default requirement that students take four years of math and science courses.

Supporters say House Bill 5 would decrease dropouts, letting students take more meaningful vocational classes that will prepare them for jobs after high school if they decide against college.

“I believe this is good policy. I think most people in Texas believe this is good policy,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said after his bill passed following nearly nine hours of discussion.

[…]

The legislation would end the three-tiered diploma system that kept some students on the lowest level from being admitted into most colleges.

All students now would have to complete a “foundation” curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.

Students could add on “endorsements” by taking courses in a speciality: business and industry; science, technology, engineering and math; public services; arts and humanities; or a mixture. Those students also would have to take a fourth math class, meant to raise the rigor, under an amendment from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Students who complete an endorsement and take four years of science and math, including Algebra II, would meet the “distinguished” standard.

The Statesman notes the main issue debated during the daylong discussion of this bill, led by Rep. Mark Strama, who was one of only two votes against it.

A bipartisan coalition of members led by Strama argued that the state would be backing away from the rigorous requirements that have produced results, particularly among low-income and minority students, in the name of giving students flexibility.

“Every conversation I’ve had for months has revolved and swirled around this issue,” Aycock said.

Under current law, the 4×4 curriculum is the default graduation plan for all students unless they opt for a minimum plan requiring fewer credits for graduation that doesn’t qualify the student for a four-year college.

Strama put forth an amendment that would make the default plan under House Bill 5 the “distinguished diploma,” which is close to the 4×4 plan and a prerequisite to qualify for automatic college admission under the state’s top 10-percent law.

The distinguished diploma requires four years of science and math, including Algebra 2, rather than the three years called for in the “foundation diploma.” Algebra 2 is seen by many educators as a key indicator of whether a student is ready for college.

“We should assume all of them want a college prep curriculum and are capable of it, and let them decide if they don’t,” Strama said.

Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, signed on to Strama’s amendment and said he was concerned that looser requirements might be sending the state in the “slightly wrong direction,” away from ensuring students are prepared for the 21st century economy.

Forcing students to choose between an upper and lower track would stigmatize the foundation diploma as the lesser option when that isn’t the intention, said Aycock and his allies.

“It would have all these students have to admit at the very beginning of school: ‘I can’t hack this. I have to drop down to a lower level in order to get through high school,’” state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said of Strama’s amendment.

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, Strama’s amendment was set aside on a 97-50 vote.

Bill McKenzie, for one, heartily approved of Strama’s amendment. Strama explains his No vote here, and it’s worth your time to read it.

In a preview story, the Trib expanded on these concerns.

Over the past several years, Texas has had “significant gains among all students, especially those of low income backgrounds,” in college and career preparation, said Sonia Troche, the Texas regional director of La Raza. “What they are doing now is actually helping.”

Primary among the concerns of opponents like Troche is a provision that would do away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and then they would earn “endorsements” by completing five credits in areas of study like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

The array of choices available to students could prove difficult to navigate for low-income and minority students whose parents are not acquainted with the system because of language or educational barriers, Troche said. Under the current plan, the default is a diploma that requires all of the courses needed for college readiness. The proposal would also reduce the number of end-of-course exams students must from 15 to five total tests, one each in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history.

“To a family that may not know all the details, they might think their son or daughter just graduated from high school and are now eligible for college,” Troche said. “But, in fact, if they did an endorsement type of program and graduated from high school but didn’t complete all the required courses, they would have a high school diploma, but would not ready to go to college.”

[…]

State education officials like Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams have joined Shapiro and Troche in sounding an alarm about the proposed changes.

Paredes said in a February interview that even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, the job opportunities for those without a college degree continue to dwindle.

“There’s an increasing amount of information that suggests career technical education is going to be done increasingly in two-year institutions, because once again, the demands of advanced manufacturing jobs and high skilled industrial jobs are growing,” he said.

High school, Paredes said, needs to prepare students to be successful in that setting.

At a Senate hearing Monday, Williams said he would recommend the number of required end-of-course exams to be reduced to eight — three more than under the HB 5 plan in either geometry or algebra II, world history or geography, and chemistry or physics. In remarks delivered around the state, he also said he does not support moving away from the 4X4 curriculum.

See Burka for more on that. I don’t agree much with the Texas Association of Business, which has been among the most stalwart supporters of the STAAR tests, to the point of hostage taking, but this is a valid concern, and it tracks with what I’ve been hearing from people who actually work in schools. Raise Your Hand Texas on the other hand seems pleased with HB5. I’m not sure what to make of all this just yet.

Rep. Harold Dutton knows what he makes of it.

No Child Left Behind, and its precursor Texas system, was created to make sure that, well, no child was left behind. But to Dutton’s way of thinking, no version of accountability, past to present, has touched the lives of African-American males in the Texas school system. So Dutton, being Dutton, proposed our accountability system be based solely on the progress of African-American males.

Aw, ever the jokester, that Dutton. On the floor, near the tail end of yesterday’s debate, Dutton talked about the dominance of African-American males in the state jails, county jails and the probation system.

“What’s the one thing they have in common, other than their race? You know what that one thing in common is?” Dutton asked from the front microphone of the House. “The TEAMS test didn’t help them. The TAAS test didn’t help them. The TAKS test didn’t help them. The end-of-course exams didn’t help them, and the reality is that House Bill 5 is not going to help them, either, unless we do something about it.”

And Dutton’s idea of doing something about it would be to judge school districts by how they teach the children on the bottom rung of academic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get a lot of support in the House.

Not a lot of big-money lobbyists for that, I’m afraid.

The Observer tracked the amendments that were proposed for HB5.

The amended bill includes new requirements that STAAR tests be given later in the year—no sooner than the third week of May—and that copies of the test be released annually instead of every three years. (Strama introduced both of those.)

Amendments approved back-to-back by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) would bar anyone working for a test contractor like Pearson from making political contributions or serving on advisory committees for the state. The amendments appear targeted at Pearson lobbyist Sandy Kress, who serves on a Texas Education Agency committee on accountability.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) tacked on an amendment limiting the benchmark tests school districts can give to two benchmarks per STAAR test. The House also approved his amendment that requiring a review of the bill’s effects on graduation rates and college readiness.

Villarreal said he supports HB 5 because he’s seen how vocational opportunities help students in his district. He said some students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in school get to see how classroom concepts apply to the real world, and find high-paying jobs after graduation.

Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) voted for the bill, but tried in vain to add protections for rural students in small schools, who she worried wouldn’t have enough course options to finish one of the “endorsements” required for a distinguished diploma.

“My concern is that we have created a plan that is not available, not attainable to all students,” Patrick said. Some representatives suggested distance learning would solve that problem.

Strama sparked the day’s toughest debate around noon, with a proposal to make the college-ready “distinguished” path the default for students, reflecting concerns from higher ed leaders and some Latino and African-American members that HB 5 would leave too many minority students unprepared for college. Strama’s amendment failed, and he eventually voted against the bill.

After the vote, Strama told the Observer that while there are many issues with standardized testing in Texas, the problems are with the execution of the tests and not with the number of end-of course exams.

“I’m afraid that in the upper level coursework we’re going to have wildly varying degrees of rigor and achievement across the state,” he said. “It is more important than ever that we measure kids with one yardstick.”

As the state’s low-income population continues to grow, Strama said it’s more important that students in poor schools are held to the same tough standards as all students.

“If we can’t get those kids to pass these tests, we’re going to pay a high price, and saying they don’t have to pass the test isn’t going to solve the problem,” Strama said.

Here’s a press release from Rep. Villarreal on his amendments. Like I said, I’m still thinking about all this. To say the least, it’s a big and complicated subject, and I don’t claim any particular expertise. I am certain that there will be differences with the Senate bill, and there will be much horse-trading in conference committee. Reducing the number of exams, and aligning them with college admissions makes sense to me. Providing viable alternate paths to high school graduation that prepare kids for a professional career and aren’t viewed as lesser achievements is a good idea, too. I feel confident that whatever we do this session, we’ll be revisiting it next session, and likely again after that.

What vocational education is like now

One of the (many) themes around public education this session has been the theme that not everyone wants or needs to go to college, and that Texas’ public education system needs to prepare students for careers in certain industries, for which there is a lot of unfulfilled demand for skilled workers. We used to call this “vocational education”, and that term has certain positive and negative connotations, but what does it mean today? This Statesman story is a good primer on it.

“Everyone realizes something has to change. We have to create more flexibility, more choice, without taking away opportunities for kids to go to college,” Hector Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council, said.

While “college- and career-readiness” is the stated objective of the Texas public education system, career has long taken a back seat to college in schools.

Career training was sidelined in Texas following the 1984 education reforms pushed by Dallas businessman Ross Perot. But the industry leaders say the real blow came in 2007 when the Legislature instituted the 4×4 graduation plan, which requires four years each of math, science, English and social studies.

Industry leaders say that rigid structure hasn’t allowed students the flexibility to take courses that would help them pursue skilled trade jobs, which are in high demand and often translate into meaningful, well-paying careers.

“Today’s advanced manufacturing requires that a skilled tradesperson knows multiple skills in this space,” said Mario Lozoya, director of government relations for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in San Antonio, where Tundra and Tacoma pickups are assembled. “That kind of skilled person is not found in San Antonio. … We have to go outside of Texas to find them.”

[…]

Alan Miller, executive director of the Capital Area Workforce Board, said 21st century career training is quite different from the “vo-tech” — vocational and technical track — of the past, which was seen as something less than the regular high school program. Minority students, in particular, were nudged toward a vo-tech track that sent them into dead-end jobs.

“In today’s world, career and technology is very rigorous. The standards for that are every bit as strong as college preparatory (classes), but what happens in many cases is it’s taught in a more applied manner. It’s not theoretical,” Miller said. “The rigor is high, but in many cases the applied math or applied science equally substitute for algebra or chemistry. The way it’s taught is different, but the rigor is there. People don’t understand that.”

Despite the political momentum behind career training this legislative session, some business and education leaders have reservations about the efforts to loosen the graduation requirements. Last week, the state commissioners who separately oversee the higher education and public education systems raised concerns about a retreat from rigorous graduation standards.

Students also need to understand that career training courses alone will not make them ready for these well-paid jobs, which typically require certification or two-year associate’s degrees, said Drew Scheberle, vice president for education at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

That post-graduation training requires the same core courses as college, Scheberle said, and the 4×4 graduation plan was designed as a “a well-rounded course of study that would prepare you to shift in different areas as the economy shifts.”

Athena’s President Bill Johnson said his workers still need many of the same skills that they learn in the current high school curriculum, particularly algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

“If you don’t have aptitude in those three,” he said, “you won’t make it at a place like this.”

I’ve been hearing from defenders of the 4×4 curriculum, who say this is something Texas is doing right and who are concerned that it may be watered down as part of the anti-STAAR backlash. I don’t have enough expertise to offer any policy prescriptions here, I just think this is something important to be aware of, especially with all of the higher-profile things dominating the discussion. What are your thoughts on and experiences with this?

How much testing is too much?

There’s not a consensus on the right number of mandatory high school standardized exams, but a lot of people are saying that what we’re doing right now is too much.

The number of high-stakes exams in Texas is the most nationwide, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Texas students previously had to pass four exams to graduate.

“Everyone’s going to say less testing is better,” said Shirley Neeley, the Texas education commissioner from 2004 to 2007. “I don’t know what the magic number is. I don’t know that there is a magic number. But fewer (than 15) has got to be better.”

Neeley joined former commissioners Robert Scott, Jim Nelson and Mike Moses in criticizing excessive high-stakes testing during the Rice forum sponsored by the Texas Tribune.

[…]

Scott, the commissioner from 2007 through summer 2012, made headlines a few months before he resigned for criticizing the state’s testing system, saying it had become a “perversion of its original intent.”

Scott said in an interview Monday that he didn’t think 15 exams was necessarily too many but he was troubled by the high consequences – tying students’ grades and diploma to their test scores, especially when the Texas Legislature cut public education funding in 2011.

“In a year when you cut $5.4 billion, you might want to ease off the stakes for a little while,” Scott said.

Nelson, a Bush appointee, said after the panel that five exams sounded reasonable, while his predecessor, Moses, said he could support up to eight with four not tied to graduation.

Robert Scott has been off the reservation for awhile now. I don’t know what the right number is, either, but it seems clear to me that we’ve arrived where we are not by careful study but by simply adopting a “more is better” ethos. There’s much to be said for making coursework more rigorous and having graduation requirements to back that up, but we need to ensure that districts, teachers, and students have all the resources they need to succeed at those levels, and I don’t think anyone can argue with a straight face that we’re doing that now. The first results of these tests show that we have a long way to go to get the results we want. There are some bills to modify the testing program already out there, with more likely to come. The one thing I feel confident about is that we’ll still be having this debate in the next legislative session.

Here come the STAAR reform bills

Fire one:

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, the newly appointed chairman of the House Public Education Committee, filed legislation Wednesday that would restructure the state’s high school graduation and student testing requirements.

Aycock’s proposal, House Bill 5, would move public schools to an accountability system with grades of A through F, a concept that has drawn support from Sen. Dan Patrick, the Houston Republican who chairs the upper chamber’s education committee, and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams. It would also significantly reduce the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate.

The legislation removes a requirement that graduating students must achieve a certain cumulative score across 15 end-of-course exams and changes the number they must take to five in reading, writing, biology, Algebra I and U.S. history. Students would be able to count satisfactory performance on Advanced Placement, SAT, or ACT exams toward graduation requirements. It also expands the diploma options available to high school students, allowing them to earn “endorsements” with focuses on areas of studies like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

“House Bill 5 will improve education in Texas by better equipping schools to meet students’ individual needs,” Aycock said in his announcement. “The filing of this bill is the first step in a very important conversation about the quality of both our schools and our workforce.”

He said that every member of his committee had signed onto the bill, which is co-authored by two Democrats and two Republicans.

Here’s HB5, which has a lot more to it than just STAAR reform. I suspect this will be the marquee education bill, at least in the House, this session. The Observer has more on HB5.

Fire two:

The Senate launched its effort to roll back high-stakes testing requirements in Texas schools on Wednesday, approving a bill that would scrap the state rule mandating that new end-of-course exams in high school count as 15 percent of the grade in each subject tested. The measure was approved unanimously and sent to the House. Sen. Dan Patrick, author of the bill and chairman of the education committee, said the change was “widely requested by parents, students and educators across the state.” The rule had been suspended last year and this school year because of vigorous objections by superintendents, concerned over the large number of students who failed one more of the EOC tests last year.

[…]

A bill filed in the House Wednesday by Aycock also calls for scrapping the 15 percent rule – and all members of the House education committee have signed on as co-authors. Aycock’s measure also would reduce the number of EOC tests that would have to be passed to graduate from high school – from the current 15 to five. Patrick said he plans to file legislation that would also reduce the number of exams for graduation, but he has rejected the idea of a moratorium on the EOC tests or dropping the requirement that students pass some of the exams to earn a diploma.

Patrick’s bill was SB135. The 15 percent rule appears to be history, and the number of end-of-course exams will drop, but there’s still a lot of room for debate as to what else happens.

Along those lines, one of the things Dan Patrick wants to make happen may have a hard time in the House.

Speaker Joe Straus warned the Texas Senate on Wednesday that if it passes a divisive school vouchers bill, the measure might not reach a floor vote in the full House.

Straus, R-San Antonio, didn’t rule out the possibility of a so-called school choice bill’s passing this session.

But he urged Senate GOP leaders “not to go full bore on something that’s an exercise in futility.”

Straus, appearing at a Texas Tribune TribLive event with the online politics outlet’s CEO and editor in chief, Evan Smith, stressed the state’s diverse educational map. That’s code for: Be careful with my rural Republicans.

Still, he did not shed a single watt of light on a specific approach that might fly in the House, such as open enrollment within a school district, or across school district lines.

“We’ve seen this before,” Straus said, recalling the House’s defeat of a voucher pilot bill in 2007, which was his first full session as a House member.

Resistance from rural Republicans as well as perceived hypocrisy by proponents, who declined to nominate their own school districts to be the site of pilots, killed the measure. In the eyes of many, San Antonio hospital-bed inventor James Leininger’s hands-on lobbying in behalf of the bill didn’t help. At the time, the House was run by Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican whom Straus forced to the sidelines in 2009.

“It just exploded in front of our very eyes,” Straus said of the 2007 bill.

The speaker said a 2013 revival has to have broader support.

“If there’s a school choice option that members, representing their districts, can support, then we’d certainly be open to it,” he said.

You can see more about what Straus had to say here. He’s not declaring a voucher bill dead, but he seems disinclined to go to the mat for something divisive. We’ll see what that ultimately means. It would be fine by me if a voucher bill never made it out of the Senate in the first place, of course.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

More STAAR changes proposed

Everyone’s least favorite standardized test is a fat target these days.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, filed a bill Tuesday offering broad changes to student assessment and high school graduation requirements in Texas.

Senate Bill 225 would significantly reduce the number of state standardized tests students must pass to graduate — from 15 to five in reading, writing, biology, Algebra I and U.S. history. It would also leave whether to count the state exams toward anything besides graduation requirements up to local school boards. A rule that requires state end-of-course exams to count toward 15 percent of students’ final grade is currently suspended, but it would take effect again next year if lawmakers do not change it.

Seliger’s bill would restructure high school graduation plans so that the current requirement of four years each in math, science, English and social studies, known as the “4X4,” would be replaced by a 26 credit “Foundation High School Program.” That program would require students to earn 16 credits in core subject areas — four in English, three in math, three in social studies, two in science, two in foreign language, and one in each physical education and fine arts — plus 10 elective credits. The program would allow students to earn diploma “endorsements” by completing five credits across areas of studies like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

Here’s SB 225, which has quite a lot to it. Rep. Mike Villarreal filed similar legislation in the House on Tuesday as well. You never know how these sweeping efforts will fare, but if there’s ever a session for this sort of thing, it’s this one, with public support aligned and the biggest booster of the STAAR standing down.

And here’s an alternate proposal that has some merit.

When Texas debuted its much-maligned STAAR test last school year, some of the harshest criticisms came from teachers, who complained they’d been given little guidance about what sorts of questions the test would include. In fact, Texas keeps the tests under wraps for three years so it can reuse them.

A bill from state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) would change that, to release STAAR questions and answer keys every year. Texas would pay the testmaker, Pearson, $2.1 million annually to develop new questions every year, according to the Texas Education Agency.

[…]

Dineen Majcher, president of the board for Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, agrees it’s a problem that teachers have to wait up to three years to see old tests. But she said Strama’s bill still doesn’t go far enough.

“While he’s going in the right direction, that still doesn’t give us diagnostic data,” Majcher said. “Diagnostic data shows in detail where the student made errors or did well and you can use that information to help that student improve.”

Unlike the STAAR test, Majcher said, her daughter brings home class tests that allow her to see what concepts she didn’t understand and better understand any mistake she originally made. Major changes to standardized testing must be implemented for students to better learn from the questions they’ve missed, Majcher said.

“Seeing the test itself is the best way to do that…in everyday school life that’s how students learn,” Majcher said. “I appreciate what Mark is trying to do, but if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”

Strama’s bill is HB554. I think what Majcher is saying is that being able to take practice tests and get feedback on what you got wrong is best. I agree with that but it seems to me that if you have the tests you can do the rest. Maybe I’m not fully understanding her concern. In any event, keep an eye on this one as well. It’ll be interesting to look back and see how the STAAR has been changed. If it somehow survives mostly intact, it won’t be from lack of effort and ideas. For a good discussion on the issues with STAAR and some proposed solutions, see this Texas Principal post from September.

Meet the new budget

Same as the old budget.

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature on Monday offered spare first drafts of the state’s next two-year budget that continue $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made last session and freeze funding for an embattled state agency set up to find a cure for cancer.

Upending recent tradition, the Texas Senate is starting off with the leaner budget this session, one that’s about $1 billion smaller than the House budget but spends nearly the same amount in general revenue, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. General revenue typically makes up around half of the total budget, with much of the remainder coming from federal funding.

The Senate proposed a $186.8 billion budget, a 1.6 percent drop from $189.9 billion, the amount the current budget is estimated to grow to after lawmakers pay for some unpaid bills in the current budget this session. General revenue spending makes up $89 billion of the budget, up 1.5 percent from the current budget.

The total House budget will be $187.7 billion, down 1.2 percent from the current budget. General revenue spending makes up $89.2 billion, a 2 percent increase from the current budget.

Both proposals drew swift criticism from Democrats and education groups, but Republican lawmakers in both chambers stressed that the budgets are merely starting points.

Let’s just say that they’ll have to show it to me before I believe it. The first time House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts or Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams starts talking about “tax relief”, I’ll know the fix is in. The debate over the supplemental budget, which will need to pay off some IOUs on Medicaid and school funds, will give us an indication of how this is going to go.

The embedded graphic above is from the Better Texas blog, which is a product of the CPPP and which you should be reading. Their point is that even with the higher revenue estimate, we’re still way below what we’d need to be spending to cover population growth and cost increases. It’s going to take a change in government to get to that point.

Still, some things do change, and the Statesman notes one of them.

One relatively small-dollar change will have an out-sized political effect. The House provided no money for the state standardized testing system, a $98 million reduction in state dollars, while the Senate fully funded the program.

Frustration has been building over the testing system, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, and parents and some business leaders are pushing for major changes. The House appears ready to force the issue.

“It will at least force the discussion,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped found Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group seeking an overhaul of the state testing system. “I think it was a very bold move.”

It’s unlikely that the final budget will zero out funding for the STAAR test, but I do agree that this will prioritize the debate over just how much standardized testing we need. Keep an eye on that.

Here are responses to the budget from Rep. Mike Villarreal and the Texas AFT. So far everyone is taking Pitts and Williams at their word that what they’ve put out now is just a starting point. If we want to end up someplace better, now is an excellent time to let your Rep and Senator know what your priorities are. It’s also a good time to note that the first Save Texas Schools rally for the session is on the calendar:

In the face of underfunding, over testing and proposed vouchers, get ready to join thousands of concerned Texans as we stand up for quality education for ALL Texas students.

DATE: Saturday, February 23, 2013

TIME/PLACE: March: 10:45 a.m. on the Congress Avenue Bridge to the Capitol.  Rally: Noon – 1:30 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

AGENDA: Speakers include Supt. John Kuhn and Diane Ravitch. More soon!

Organizing in Your Area: Click here to be an organizer in your area.

Transportation: We have scholarships available to local groups to help with buses this year. Click here to apply. Please contact Save Texas Schools as soon as possible!

Let us know you’re coming! Click here to sign the Save Texas Schools petition and to register for the rally.

As always, speak now or forever lose the right to complain about the end result. Burka is dumbfounded by it all, Grits says that “on the criminal justice front they’re not off to an inspiring start”, and EoW, Sen. Kirk Watson, and the Observer have more.

Everybody hates the STAAR test now

In reading this story about the flood of legislation being filed to scale back or defer the STAAR tests, I am struck, but not surprised, by the genesis of this activity.

The clamor for change may have more to do with who’s finally speaking up, said Patricia López, a research associate at the Texas Center for Education Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Advocacy groups long have pointed out that standardized tests disproportionately hurt poor and minority students but the backlash has grown powerful and received more media attention because some aspects of STAAR “get really personal” with other populations, she said.

STAAR requirements impact high school seniors’ graduation plans and class rank in ways that its predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, never did — directly affecting a more affluent demographic of students and parents, she said.

“When you think about our old system, it was just about passing, and really the only kids that had to worry about that were the kids that were struggling,” said Arlene Williams, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the San Antonio area’s Southwest Independent School District.

Under STAAR, even “your high fliers” could be set back, agreed Southwest’s superintendent, Lloyd Verstuyft.

Nothing’s real until it affects middle class white people, am I right? Sure is funny how these things work. The attention to the potential negative effects of the STAAR test and the recent bouts of sanity concerning it are welcome, but I just have to shake my head at what it finally took to make it happen.

TAB yields on testing

Retreat!

Some of the strongest advocates for high-stakes testing, Texas business leaders now want to cut the number of exams students must pass to finish high school, the latest attempt to ease tougher graduation requirements that went into effect last year.

The number of high-stakes tests would fall from 15 to as few as six under the business groups’ plan, and school districts would not have to count the exam scores as part of students’ course grades.

Bill Hammond, who leads the Texas Association of Business, on Wednesday acknowledged that the law mandating the increased testing “quite honestly overdid it a little bit.”

His comments echo concerns that educators and parents have been taking to state lawmakers in recent months. Scores on the first round of tests last spring showed thousands of students were below grade level and were at risk of not graduating.

The business groups’ plan likely will serve as a conversation starter for state lawmakers when they reconvene in January. Education Commissioner Michael Williams, at the urging at Gov. Rick Perry, already has suspended the law requiring exam scores to count in students’ grades.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of debate on all these topics before any decision is reached,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

The first crack in the wall appeared last week, when Sen. Dan Patrick submitted a bill to give local districts more control over how STAAR results factored into students’ grades, followed by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams suspending the 15% requirement for this year. At the time I noted that we hadn’t heard from TAB about this. Now we know why. Here’s more from the Trib.

Calling their plans a constructive response to widespread criticism of the state’s new student assessments, leaders from the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Institute for Education Reform and the Texas Business Leadership Council recommended letting local school districts determine how end-of-course exams factored into students’ final grades, reducing the number of exams they must pass to graduate and providing different ways to earn a high school diploma.

Despite its high-profile backers, the proposal does not have the full support of the business community. Missing from Wednesday’s conference was the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Senior Vice President Drew Scheberle said the new proposal reduces the already low expectations students must meet to get high school diplomas — something he said would threaten their ability to compete for top-quality jobs.

“It’s trying to solve the wrong problem,” he said. “The problem I’m hearing from parents is too many tests, poor communication, not enough flexibility in courses. You can solve those problems and not sacrifice preparing kids for college and career.”

The leaders present Wednesday acknowledged the announcement represented a change from the position they took at a news conference six months ago, when they emphasized their opposition to any changes to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said then that they would “vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system” until they were certain that the current accountability system would be maintained. During the last legislative session, an attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, to make some of the changes now supported by the three groups failed in the Senate with the opposition of the business community.

But on Wednesday they laid out a plan that Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham said was the result of a six-month-long “listening tour” across the state where they heard the concerns of educators, business leaders and elected officials.

But not the concerns of parents, apparently. It’s not clear to me if TAB intends to release its hostage – as recently as last month they vowed not to – or if that is contingent on them having final approval over whatever replacement system gets adopted. For now, at least, they have stepped away from the brink.

Some sanity on STAAR

This is a welcome development.

A requirement that the state exams count toward 15 percent of a student’s course grade sparked a backlash last spring over the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, among parents whose ninth-graders were the first to take the more rigorous exams. A statewide parent group emerged out of the controversy and is calling for major changes to the testing system.

In a nod to the influence of the parents, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, unveiled legislation that would strike the mandate and allow school districts to decide how much a student’s end-of-course test score should figure into the final grade.

High school students must take 15 end-of-course exams to graduate, and parents feared that including the test scores in the course grade might affect a student’s grade-point average and, in turn, college admissions.

“This is about local control. The school districts, and the parents, should have a voice on whether the end-of-course exams should count towards a student’s final grade,” said Patrick, who plans to propose other modifications to STAAR in coming weeks.

“Local control” is one of those concepts that Republicans tend to invoke when it’s convenient and ignore when it’s not. It’s being used in service of something sensible here, so I’m not complaining, just noting the flexibility. The initial results from the STAAR test were not encouraging, and there has been considerable pushback from parents and school administrators over it. This is a breakthrough for them, but the fight is far from over.

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped form the parent group, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, welcomed Patrick’s willingness to take the lead on an issue that had worried so many parents.

But she added that it wouldn’t quell the parents’ concerns over the testing system. They want legislators to reduce the number of tests that must be taken to graduate and modify the complicated method for determining if a student is on track for graduation.

“The 15 percent issue awoke us to a system that is bad for kids,” Majcher said. “Changing the 15 percent requirement is only a start. Thus, while this is an important step in the right direction, there are still significant revisions that must be made. Simply addressing the 15 percent is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a major hemorrhage.”

Business leaders that have been the most vocal proponents of the 15 percent provision were resigned Thursday to the about-face by lawmakers.

Bill “Hostage Taker” Hammond wasn’t quoted in this story, so I would not be too sure about business leaders taking this lying down. If Hammond throws a hissy fit over this, it will set up an interesting dynamic for the session, since he’ll be in opposition not just to Sen. Patrick but also to Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and now Texas Education Agency head Michael williams, who has agreed to defer the 15% rule for now.

As I said, this fight is far from over. One vocal critic of Texas’ high-stakes testing regime is SBOE member Thomas Ratliff, and he has plenty to say on the subject.

Is the test really the problem? Personally, I don’t think so. Testing is a form of accountability and measurement. It’s always been a part of an education and it always will be. Despite what the Texas Association of Business wants you to believe, parents ARE NOT against testing or accountability. What parents ARE against are the stakes riding on the outcome of those tests and the fact that those tests are currently the only way a student, teacher, campus or district is deemed to be a success or failure in the eyes of the Legislature, the TEA and the public.

What’s the solution to this situation?

As you might expect, I have a few ideas.

1) We need the Legislature to repeal the 15% grade requirement. Simple enough.

2) We need the SBOE to start reducing the length of the TEKS as they come back up for renewal. TEKS are supposed to stand for the Texas ESSENTIAL Knowledge and Skills. They go well beyond what’s essential in my opinion.

3) We need an accountability system that contains elements that have nothing to do with the standardized test. Graduation rates, UIL participation, National Merit Scholars, CTE participation, service hours, dual credit enrollment are just a few suggestions. We also need to stop grading campuses and districts on their lowest performing sub-group. I know Commissioner Williams and the TEA are working on this and they are headed in the right direction. I just hope they go far enough to make meaningful change.

4) We simply have too many state-mandated tests. Massachusetts, which is supposedly the envy of all public schools systems in the United States, has 3 state-mandated standardized tests. Finland, which is supposedly the envy of all public school systems in the world, has one. That’s right, one. This reminds me of an old saying, “The cow doesn’t get heavier just because you weigh it more.”

So, I’d like to conclude with another farming analogy. It’s time to put the high-stakes testing regime out to pasture.

The Statesman story notes that Rep. Dan Huberty filed a bill to eliminate the 15% requirement altogether. I don’t expect that to pass, but it’s out there. I’m also reminded of one of Scott Hochberg’s proposals from last session to exempt students who did well on the STAAR in one year from taking them the next since they’re statistically almost certain to pass. If nothing else, that could be a good compromise. We’ll see how it goes.

TAB does not intend to release its hostage

And why should they, if it’s a viable strategy?

Representatives from the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, which includes major business groups and local chambers of commerce, said at a news conference that the assessment and accountability system known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness cannot be rolled back.

Too many students are leaving Texas public schools ill-prepared for college or a “high-performance” job, said Mike Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, who pointed to the 42 percent of students at Austin Community College who needed remedial classes.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said efforts to dilute the high-stakes system is the wrong move for the state’s businesses and the public school students who go to work for those businesses.

“We send kids to (community college) telling them that they’re ready to go, and they walk in the door and they find out the next day that they’re not and they’re going to have to take these god-awful remedial courses and they have to pay for them and they don’t get credit,” Hammond said. “That’s not fair to them.”

The coalition said 80 percent of Texas students should graduate ready for college or a career without remedial classes. In the first round of the new testing system last spring, only 3 percent of students met that standard on the end-of-course writing exam.

The coalition is open to some minor modifications, such as reducing how much the end-of-course test matters in a student’s final grade. Current law says the score should count as 15 percent, which was the primary source of consternation among the parents last spring.

Dineen Majcher, who is part of the parent group, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, said the business leaders’ hard-line position is unrealistic.

“There are parents all over the state that understand that the system is broken,” Majcher said. “It is imprudent to completely ignore that.”

Well, the way to make TAB and Bill Hammond understand that is to elect enough candidates that support your position and oppose theirs to force them to the negotiating table. As long as they think they’ve got enough legislators under their sway, they don’t need to care what anyone else thinks. These are the stakes today, I hope everyone was paying attention. See here, here, and here for more.

Pauken responds to Hammond

Tom Pauken responds to Bill Hammond on the subject of school accountability.

Hammond encourages us to “stay the course” of the existing high-stakes testing system and “4×4” curriculum that have come to dominate public education in Texas. Implicit in this expensive testing system (the cost to Texas taxpayers is an estimated $450 million over a five-year period) and the 4×4 curriculum is the idea that everyone should be prepared to go to a four-year university. I call it the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education, which doesn’t acknowledge that students have different talents and interests. The current system clearly isn’t working all that well to prepare students to be “college ready.” And it is doing a particularly poor job for those students who would benefit from a greater emphasis on career and technical education at the high school level.

So why should we “stay the course” of an overly prescriptive curriculum and a high-stakes testing system that haven’t delivered on its promises since they were first put in place in the mid-1990s? Rather than acknowledging that this state-mandated system isn’t working, the response from the defenders of the status quo is to roll out a new test, make a few changes to the accountability system and promise everything will be better if we just give it a chance to work. That’s what they said when TAAS became TAKS, and that’s what they are saying now that TAKS is becoming STAAR.

What can we do to inject some common sense into the discussion on education policy? We need multiple pathways to a high school diploma — pathways that reflect student goals. Every student should get the basics. Then, for those students wanting to go on to a university, there would be a college preparatory curriculum with emphasis on math and science, or one that focuses on humanities and the fine arts. There would be a career-oriented curriculum for students so inclined which would prepare them with an industry-certified license or credential by the time they graduate from high school.

I fully support holding schools accountable. But the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students; rather, it makes them beholden to performance on a single test. Success and accountability can be measured in a variety of ways.

Pauken’s piece is a response to one that Hammond wrote, which may or may not have been in response to a column by Patti Hart, which continues a debate that flared up after Hammond and the Texas Association of Business threatened to take school finance hostage if they didn’t get their way. As I’ve said before, I agree with Pauken, and I’m not really sure why this is even controversial. But apparently this is how we do things these days.

TAB takes a hostage

Can’t say I’m surprised by this tactic.

Leaders in the business community said Wednesday that they would not stand for increased funding for education if it came with any rollback of accountability standards in Texas public schools.

“If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained.”

The Capitol news conference, held by the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, comes as the standardized testing that is the backbone of the state accountability system is facing considerable backlash from parents, educators and lawmakers.

[…]

Wednesday, members of the workforce coalition — which includes groups influential in the Legislature like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Business Leadership Council (formerly the Governor’s Business Council) — made clear they would not support any kind of tweaks to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. An attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler to do just that during the last legislative session failed with the opposition of the business community.

“Before this landmark piece of legislation, HB3, is even fully implemented, we have people who want to roll it back and go back to fight the old wars about teaching to the test and all these other myths that are out there,” said Jim Windham, chairman of Texas Institute for Education Reform.

They argued that the existing system is the only way to ensure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.

“STAAR testing is an excellent step towards ensuring that the state’s education dollars are being directed into the classroom so that college- and workforce-ready students emerge from Texas public schools,” said James Golsan, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

To be blunt, these guys are full of it. The TPPF thinks we spend too much on education to begin with, and TAB is about as likely to support any measure that would actually increase revenue for education as Rick Perry is. Saying they’ll oppose an increase in funding for public education unless their demands are met is like Willie Sutton saying he’ll oppose the hiring of more police officers unless those pesky bank robbery laws get repealed.

On a more general note, I don’t understand the single-minded focus on the STAAR tests. Everyone wants accountability, and everyone wants students to graduate having received a good, comprehensive, useful education, but why in the world must we believe that STAAR tests are the only way to achieve that? I agree with this:

Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer whose daughter will be a sophomore at Anderson High School next fall, said she was offended by the insinuation that parents are being led around by superintendents.

“We are smart enough to see what that system is and is not doing and we can perfectly understand on our own that it is a badly flawed system that needs to be fixed,” said Majcher, who listened to the news conference at the Texas Capitol.

“I think it is inappropriate to hold public funding hostage to repairing the problems that we all know exist with the current testing system,” said Majcher, who is part of a new parent group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. “The testing system is badly implemented, badly flawed, there are a lot of groups, a lot of parents who are working very hard to make positive corrections to that. I would not call that rolling it back. I think when we see a mistake, we make a course correction.”

Exactly. We’ve been pushing various accountability measures for 20 years in Texas. Some have worked well, others not so much, but it’s been an ongoing experiment, with tweaks, adjustments, and changes of direction as needed. To believe that the STAAR and only the STAAR can achieve the goals these guys says they want is myopic and suggests they care more about the process than the result. Turns out, even some prominent Republicans see it that way, too.

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said Thursday that the state’s current public education accountability system is “broken and badly in need of fixing.”

During testimony at a hearing of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development on career and technology education, the former state GOP chairman expressed his disagreement with a coalition of business leaders and a conservative think tank that announced Wednesday it would oppose any additional funding to public education if there were any rollback of existing accountability standards.

Pauken, who along with two other commissioners oversees the development of the state’s workforce, said he was surprised that the coalition claimed to speak for the business community and conservatives as it defended the existing testing system.

He said he had found widespread agreement among business leaders, teachers, school district officials and community college representatives he had spoken to around the state that “teaching to the test is one of the real reasons that we have a significant skill trade shortage.”

Pauken said he spoke as both a businessman and a conservative when he criticized the position taken by the coalition.

“The current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test,” Pauken said, adding that a consequence of the system was that “‘real learning’ has been replaced by ‘test learning.’”

Hammond and his buddies are speaking in their own interest, not those of schools, students, or parents. We should not take their little tantrum seriously.

STAAR pushback

The House Public Ed committee gets an earful.

Members of the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday questioned why the first batch of students who took the end-of-course exams scored so poorly. For example, 55 percent of ninth-graders met the minimum passing standard on the English writing test, and only 3 percent hit the college readiness standard that will be required in 2016.

“Is it a function of the instrument? That’s one answer. Is it a function of student attainment? That’s a different answer,” said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

They got few answers. State education officials said there is not enough data to draw conclusions with only one administration of the test.

[…]

Superintendents from across the state testified that the number of high school dropouts could skyrocket in the coming years because almost three-quarters of the students who failed the exams this spring were already considered at risk of dropping out.

In order to graduate, high school students must achieve an average passing score in the four core subject areas: math, English, science and social studies. Students who have failed two or three exams might give up because they will lose hope that they can catch up, said Amarillo Superintendent Rod Schroder, who testified at the hearing.

Manor Superintendent Andrew Kim, who also testified, said he supported the increased rigor of the end-of-course exams. But he said the state needs to help districts help students who struggled on the tougher test by allowing districts to start school earlier in the year and providing greater aid for students with limited English skills.

Only 8 percent of the ninth-graders with limited English skills met the minimum standard on the writing test, even with some accommodations. Educators asked legislators to give those students an extra year to get up to speed and offer the tests in the student’s native language.

Schroder drew applause from the audience when he called for eliminating a mandate that the end-of-course exam score count for 15 percent of a student’s final grade.

The Trib has more on this.

The 15 percent rule was designed to create “skin in the game” for students taking the exams, said Amarillo ISD Superintendent Rod Schroder and Aldine ISD Superintendent Wanda Bamberg. But students already have two other incentives to perform well, they said — the cumulative exam score they need to graduate and the minimum scores needed to pass each test.

The committee also heard testimony from TEA officials, who addressed difficulties in timing STAAR exams. Currently, exams are administered about a month before school ends, so teachers have not yet covered all course material.

If exams are administered later, schools will not have time to see the results before starting summer school for students who must retake tests, said Gloria Zyskowski, the agency’s director of its Student Assessment Division. In turn, summer school cannot be pushed back because that would interfere with the start of the next school year.

Given this year’s timeline for exam return, there is no way to resolve the timeline of the statewide exam so that it covers the entire course, said Tyler ISD Superintendent Randy Reid.

“I don’t see any solution to them getting the scores back in a timely manner,” Reid said.

Any new system is going to have some bugs to work out, but the issues here are pretty fundamental. I get the desire for more rigor, but it really sends a message that the push for higher standards comes at the same time as a $5.4 billion cut to the budget. The students that will have the greatest difficulty with the STAAR or any other accountability measure are exactly those who have the greatest needs. Jay Aiyer takes a closer look at the test scores and what they mean.

First and foremost, it is critical to understand what the test results actually say. If final standards scheduled to take effect in 2016 were used today, only 41 percent of students in biology, 39 percent in algebra 1, 40 percent in world geography, 46 percent in reading and 34 percent in writing would have passed. Based on this data, we can logically conclude that nearly 60 percent of high school students lack mastery of the tested subject at a level consistent with a student who is college-bound. If we analyze the data further, we see that students in affluent districts and students in admissions-based magnet programs far outperformed students in schools with large, economically disadvantaged populations. Unfortunately, this is consistent with a multiyear trend that strongly correlates family income with student performance.

This is true in Texas, across the country and around the world.

In fact, the Houston Independent School District, with a student population that is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, actually outperformed the state and many suburban districts, when the data are adjusted by income.

It is also important to note that the nearly 60 percent passage rate roughly corresponds to the percentage of students currently enrolled in remedial education classes at two and four-year colleges in our state. What STAAR results seem to have identified are students who are not on pace to graduate ready for college.

If we recognize that STAAR is simply a reflection of the underlying problems in public education, much of which is caused by economic factors that are outside the schoolhouse, what do we do?

Remediation can only do so much if you ignore the underlying issues, which is what we have always done and will keep doing, with even greater vigor these days. Meanwhile, the schools that are being told to do more with less now have to spend a bunch of money they don’t have on remediation. Don’t expect anything to be different next year.

Not a great start for the STAAR tests

Whatever we think about standardized tests, we’ll need to do better than this.

Thousands of Houston-area high school students failed the state’s new standardized exams and must retake them – or risk not graduating.

Preliminary test results released by several local districts Thursday reveal that ninth-graders struggled the most on the writing exam, indicating they are not prepared for college-level work.

In the Houston Independent School District, about 7,500 freshmen failed at least one of the end-of-course exams they took last spring. On the writing test, only 47 percent of HISD’s freshmen passed, early data show. Students can retake the exams as soon as July or later in high school.

“We will learn from this,” HISD’s chief academic officer, Alicia Thomas, told the school board Thursday. “The rigor in our classrooms will increase. It’s a challenge for HISD. It’s actually a challenge for all districts in Texas.”

The ninth-grade class from 2012 is the first affected by a state law requiring students to pass 15 end-of-course exams throughout high school to graduate. Under the former system, students had to pass four tests.

The new exams, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, were designed to be much harder than prior state tests, with more complex questions and a time limit.

You have to expect some struggles early on, with the test being more stringent and the schools being under a lot more stress from the budget cuts. The pass rates outside of English are actually not too bad, though that’s surely skewed by the lower threshold for passing right now. I do believe the school districts will get their rates up, but in the meantime those who were worried about the effect these tests may ultimately have on graduation and dropout rates have reason to continue to be worried about it.

The TEA, for its part, says the results statewide were about what they expected.

“While we know there is always an adjustment period for students and teachers in a new testing program, results from the first STAAR assessments are encouraging overall, showing that students generally performed as expected or better and that educators focused intensely on the state curriculum,” Education Commissioner Robert Scott said in a news release.

Bill Hammond, president and chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, which has advocated for accountability and higher standards in public education, called the results disappointing.

“I think it’s safe to say we were all hoping for higher scores, but at least we know now how far we have to go to ensure we have college or career-ready graduates,” Hammond said. “It is a long road, but if we hold our schools and superintendents accountable for improving these results, I believe they will improve.” Hair Balls has more.

Hammond, of course, won’t do anything useful to bring about those improved results we’d all like to see, but he does represent a lot of money, so he gets to be quoted in stories like these.

Are the end of course standards too low?

Beginning this year, high school students must pass new end of course exams in a variety of subjects in order to be able to graduate. These tests begin in the ninth grade and continue through the 12th. The standards will be relaxed for the first couple of years while everyone gets used to them. Some people think the state is going too easy on the schools by doing it that way.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has said the agency decided to phase in the standards, starting lower this year and increasing them through 2016, because students need time to adjust to the much more difficult questions on the new exams.

But a prominent business leader and the head of the state’s largest school district suggested the lower bar at the outset will give students, teachers and the public a skewed picture of schools’ performance.

‘False sense of security’

“It gives all of us an inadequate report of where we are,” said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier. “It gives you a false sense of security.”

Grier said he would prefer to start with the higher standards, even if it means more schools earn the state’s lowest academic rating.

“If they’re unacceptable, they’re unacceptable,” Grier said. “We need to accept the fact that they are what they are and get very busy trying to improve them.”

The standards also drew criticism from Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business.

Hammond said the scores should accurately reflect whether students are being prepared for college and careers.

The TEA plans to release statewide scores from the new tests, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, this week or next. Scattered reports suggest that students struggled, even with the lower passing standards.

Ninth-graders who took the exams in spring 2012 must answer between 37 percent and 65 percent of the questions correctly to pass, depending on the subject. By 2016, freshmen will need to correctly answer 60 percent to 70 percent to pass most of the exams.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said districts should have reports this year that show how students would have done had the higher standards been in place, so the information can be shared with the public.

I guess I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s normal to phase things like this in, the only difference here is the four year timeline instead of a two year timeline. Based on what Ratcliffe says, the schools should know exactly where they stand even if their rating starts out higher than where it would have been. You can see the TEA’s STAAR Resources page for all the relevant information. The main concern that I have heard about the STAAR tests, beyond the usual aversion to our increasingly standardized-test-centric school culture, is that it will exacerbate our already worrisome dropout problem. These tests are a big change, and we’re implementing them at the same time as we’ve slashed five billion dollars from public education. I am perfectly fine with taking it slowly to see if there are any negative effects before going all in on yet another high stakes test.

Are you smarter than a Texas high school student?

Well, why don’t you take this sample STAAR test and find out? It’s very much non-trivial. I got 11 out of 15 correct – I punted on the two physics questions and on the first World History question, though in retrospect I might have gotten it right if I’d thought about it, and I guessed wrong on the chemistry question. I was able to do all of the algebra questions in my head, however, and that’s all that really matters to me.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think these questions would have been too tough for my high school self. I did attend one of the best high schools in the country, Stuyvesant High School in New York, so that’s not too surprising. For those of you who attended high school in Texas, how do these questions stack up against your experience? Would you say the curriculum, or at least the standardized tests, are harder, easier, or about the same as they were when you were in school? Leave a comment and let me know.

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

Texas high school graduation rate improved over the last decade

According to one report, anyway.

Texas’ graduation rate for high school students increased 1.9 percent since 2002 to just below the national average, according to a new report by a coalition of education groups.

The report found that high school graduation rates rose from 73.5 percent to 75.4 percent between 2002 and 2009, and pulled almost even with the 2009 average nationwide of 75.5 percent.

The national graduation rate, though, increased faster than the state’s, climbing 2.9 percent over the same 7-year period. The biggest gains nationwide came in Tennessee, where rates jumped 17.8 percent, and New York, which increased 13 percent, between 2002 and 2009.

[…]

The report will be presented Monday in Washington at the Building a Grad Nation summit sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance, a children’s advocacy organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was authored by John Bridgeland and Mary Bruce of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm focused on social change, and Robert Balfanz and Joanna Fox of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The authors used the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, which tracks first-year students through all their years in high school, since they said it was the best and most-recent data available nationwide.

You can find the report here. It actually says that the nation’s graduation rate rose by 3.5 percentage points, from 72.0 to 75.5, during the 2002 to 2009 time period. Not sure why the news report got that wrong. Given that, despite the positive spin in the opening paragraphs, this actually means that Texas’ graduation rate fell below the national average during this time.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t improvement:

As recently as 2010, the Texas Legislative Budget Board reported the state’s overall graduation rate ranked a dismal 43rd nationwide. Last month, though, the Texas Education Agency announced that a National Governor’s Association report put Texas’ graduation rate for the class of 2010 at 84.3 percent, or 10th highest among the 34 participating states who track student performance over their entire high school career. Yet another report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the state’s 2008-2009 graduation rate was 75.4 percent, or 28th in the nation — findings similar to those in Monday’s report.

“There’s lots of different ways to look at it and everybody’s got a different intention,” said Frances Deviney, Texas Kids Count director at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. But she said other measures, including drop-out rates, have fallen in recent years, providing additional evidence more high schoolers statewide are graduating.

“It is getting better,” Deviney said, though she worries that cuts in state funding for programs designed to keep students from leaving school early could eventually undo those gains.

What happens going forward is the big question. Either the massive cuts to public education funding have a negative effect on the graduation rate or they don’t. I should note that even without the cuts, there are a lot of people who are concerned that the new STAAR test and the end of course exams now mandated for high school students would contribute to a higher dropout rate regardless. We know how things were going before 2011. It will be a few years before we really know what happened after 2011. What will we do if we find we’ve reversed course?

Shapiro backs STAAR delay

This was unexpected.

Sen. Florence Shapiro

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Monday in a letter to [TEA Commissioner Robert] Scott that ninth-graders taking the exams this year should be given a reprieve from the 15 percent requirement during the phase-in of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

“We strongly support the transition to end-of-course assessments as crucial to enhancing the college readiness of our students. We support the waiver of the course grade requirement solely as a transition to the new testing and accountability system,” wrote Shapiro, one of the architects of the new accountability system. The letter was signed by three other senators involved in the legislation.

The end-of-course exams will still apply toward ninth-graders’ graduation requirements. Most students must take a total of 12 end-of-course exams in four core subjects: English, math, science and social studies.

Parents and school administrators have been clamoring for relief from the 15 percent requirement. They worry that the new exams could harm a student’s grade-point average and class rank, which could affect whether the student automatically qualifies for admission to state universities.

[…]

Last year, the Texas House overwhelmingly passed a measure that addressed some of the anxieties that have been springing up across the state this year as parents and students have begun to grasp the implications of the test. The bill died because Shapiro never brought it up for consideration in her Senate committee.

The whole point of that ill-fated legislation, House Bill 500, was to “give the kids the same transition that school districts had without easing the rigor or accountability,” said House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

See here, here, and here for background on the legislative process. Shapiro had been critical of Scott after he gave a speech that said that the state testing system has become a “perversion of its original intent” and that he was looking forward to “reeling it back in.” In the grand scheme of things this doesn’t amount to that much – the test will go on, despite other concerns regarding funding and the possibly deleterious effect of even more high stakes tests on high school graduation rates – but it would be a relief to this year’s batch on ninth graders and their parents if Scott goes along with it. With Rep. Eissler voicing his support as well, it looks likely to happen.

UPDATE: Commissioner Scott has authorized the delay.

Make sure you measure everything

A lot of groups are measuring a lot of things related to the state’s cuts to public education funding, but there’s one big thing not mentioned in this story that needs to be accurately tracked as well.

In March, the Texas Education Agency will release the official numbers on school district employment for the 2011-12 school year, including job losses. The figures will be a reckoning in some ways — the first time the state will actually measure the affect of a historic reduction in financing. But several groups, including nonprofit organizations and professional associations, and at least one lawmaker, would like to have a better idea before then — to help shape their own policies and in some cases to be able to control how the discussion is framed.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers, the state branch of the national teachers association, recently released a survey that showed that budget cuts had resulted in widespread layoffs and low morale among public school employees. Linda Bridges, the branch’s president, emphasized the strength of the study’s findings, but because it was an online survey, she said, it was “unscientific” in nature.

The KDK-Harman Foundation, a private nonprofit, is working with Children at Risk, an education advocacy group in Houston, to conduct a comprehensive study on how schools are managing with less money. Jennifer Esterline, the foundation’s executive director, said a lack of both quantitative and qualitative information on the effects of the cuts prompted the study, which was expected to cost just over $100,000.

[…]

Lynn Moak, whose school finance consulting firm, Moak, Casey & Associates, has kept track of job-loss estimates since the start of the session, said the figure of layoffs could vary widely by source, depending on which employees are counted.

For instance, if only teachers are included, it may be a much smaller number than if all employees are included, because many districts are trying to cut everywhere except in the classroom. Moak said that depending on their financial status, districts may face the greater bulk of their budget cuts for the 2011-12 school year — which could cushion the numbers districts report this year.

These are all good things to know, but to me it all comes down to student performance and graduation rates. Obviously, the state keeps track of those things, but I don’t know if anyone who is tying it to the financial effect on each school district. The cuts were distributed evenly across the districts instead of being proportional to how much each district received in per-student funding, so some districts were affected a lot more than others. How will that be reflected in standardized test scores and graduation rates? That’s what I want to know, and I hope everyone else with a stake in this wants to know it, too. We may not know everything for a fea years, given the addition of high school exit exams and the change to the STAAR test, but we ought to know enough to make a judgment about how the cuts affected the students. What we do from there will depend on the next election, and the one after that.