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Abbott denies his pre-k plan means standardized testing for 4-year-olds

Glad we cleared that up.

Still not Greg Abbott

After questions were raised about language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s campaign is clarifying his early education plan, saying he is not calling for such tests.

The proposal — the first detailed glimpse at Abbott’s education policy — aims to increase accountability for pre-kindergarten programs in the state by tying their funding to academic outcomes. Announced a little more than a week ago, it asks Texas lawmakers to require school districts with such programs to “administer assessments at the beginning and end of the year.”

After Democrats and education advocates said Abbott’s policy opened the door to standardized testing for pre-K students, the Abbott campaign said Tuesday the language in the attorney general’s proposal would not amount to standardized exams for 4-year-olds.

“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.

[…]

Abbott’s proposal would provide an additional $1,500 in state funding for each student enrolled in half-day pre-K programs  — which the state currently funds for children who cannot speak English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families — if those programs meet state-set “gold standard” performance requirements. The biannual assessments are necessary, the proposal states, to provide the state with “data necessary to properly evaluate” whether districts would qualify as “gold standard.”

In the section describing how the state should monitor pre-K performance, the proposal cites a 2012 report published by the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit organization that develops and administers tests worldwide, that details policies related to “assessing preschoolers’ learning outcomes.” It explains that there are three methods of evaluating pre-K students: through “norm referenced standardized tests,” observations based on predetermined checklists and scales, and portfolios of children’s work. Most states use either the first or second approach, and Texas, it notes, is one of four states that do not require any kind of assessment for pre-K programs.

On Tuesday, Hirsch said that the assessment methods mentioned in the plan were “there for informational purposes only.”

“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said. “As the plan states, TEA should publish a list of approved assessments that districts may use.”

Under the plan, local school districts would chose from a list of approved assessments to be published by the Texas Education Agency, which it states should avoid “granting any one testing organization a monopoly.”

Asked whether the attorney general would call on the TEA to not include standardized testing as an approved assessment, Hirsch said Abbott “would discourage the use of standardized testing for pre-K students.”

See here for the background. The TSTA, no fans of Abbott’s, remain skeptical. All I can say is that when your education-related plan uses words like “assessment”, people are naturally going to think you’re talking about standardized tests. Abbott’s plan may not actually lead to such testing, but if people think it will, he’s going to have a hard time convincing them otherwise. Sucks to be you, dude.

On a related note, Lisa Falkenberg covers the subject of pre-k education with a candidate comparison.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks among Texas gubernatorial candidates about pre-K, and how the state should invest in it. Yes, I said “how,” not “if.” It’s a good thing that both candidates, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, can agree that early education is a priority. One that deserves time on the campaign trail. One that deserves a pledge of funds in support.

So far, the biggest difference between the candidates’ proposals seems to be that Davis wants to expand access to full day pre-K to all 4-year-olds in Texas, while Abbott wants to channel limited state funds into the highest quality half-day programs that meet what he calls “the gold standard.”

In general, I side with Abbott on spending limited resources on quality programs, as long as they serve the neediest students. Only high-quality pre-school programs have been shown to produce initial academic gains and long-term character and social benefits that make at-risk kids less likely to commit crimes later in life and more likely to graduate from high school and hold down a job.

Davis’ vision of a Texas where “every eligible Texas child has access to quality, full-day pre-K” is noble, as was President Barack Obama’s similar goal. Davis’ idea about a sliding scale that would allow families to pay what they can is tempting. I’d love to stop paying a second mortgage for private tuition.

But let’s face it. Texans, in our current political incarnation, are simply not willing to make that investment. While the state spent about $727 million on pre-K in the 2012 school year, Davis has estimated her plan would cost an additional $750 million per year.

We don’t even adequately fund our current programs.

The Legislature’s decision in 2011 to cut $200 million from a grant program that helped school districts provide full-day pre-K had disastrous effects. Only $30 million was restored, which is one factor in a lawsuit against the state. And state-funded pre-K seems to be dropping in quality.

In its “quality standards checklist” for 2012, the National Institute for Early Education Research found that Texas meets only two out of 10 benchmarks for pre-K. Teacher education and training, class size and staff-to-child ratios were not among those met.

Abbott’s plan to boost good half-day schools, meanwhile, would cost an estimated $118 million for the years 2016 and 2017. That’s far less than the amount the state once provided for expansion. So, while his strategy is smarter, if he really wants us to believe early education is a priority for him, he needs to put his money where his mouth is.

We can easily afford Davis’ plan. The state is awash in revenue right now, with $2.5 billion left unspent from the last biennium on top of rising projections. We have so much revenue that the usual greedhead fat cats are calling for tax cuts, because they don’t care about spending money on the things Texas needs. This isn’t about making hard choices, it’s about making good choices. Davis’ plan, which amounts to less than two percent of the revenue that will be available in 2015 for the biennium, will likely wind up costing less overall, as schools will be able to spend less money on remediation in the early grades. Abbott’s plan, once you get past the Charles Murray issue and the testing questions and the bizarre animus towards Head Start, still at its maximal amounts to a 40% cut from 2009 spending levels. How much clearer a choice do you need?

New accountability standards, more schools on the failing list

Not a good headline.

The number of officially faltering public schools in Texas almost doubled last year, in part because of higher accountability standards imposed by state education policy.

The Texas Education Agency released Thursday a list of 892 schools that fell short of minimum standards and which have been placed on the Public Education Grant list. Students at schools on the list are allowed to transfer to other schools if their parents wish, and the schools accepting them get additional funds to educate them.

Districts are required to notify parents of children who attend a school on the list that they can request a transfer, including transfers to another district. However, districts are not required to accept such transfer requests.

The Houston Independent School District had 53 schools on the list, nearly triple the number from last year when 18 schools were deemed struggling. District officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

[…]

For a school to be placed on the list, more than 50 percent of its students have failed to meet the minimum threshold on accountability tests in two of the last three years, or it has been rated “academically unacceptable” in 2011 or “improvement required” last year. (No accountability ratings were given in 2012.) Those are the lowest categories in the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test that was implemented in 2013.

In 2012, the list included 456 schools. Schools can remain on the list for three years, meaning some whose students performed above the minimum performance threshold last year could still be on it.

DeEtta Culberson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency told the Associated Press that, “historically, when changes are made to the accountability system, the number of schools that are included in the list tends to rise.”

I suppose that’s to be expected, and I certainly hope the schools on that list can work their way off of it this year. You can see the list here. I don’t remember the names of the former North Forest ISD schools, so I don’t know how many of them are present. The schools I did notice included a couple in my neighborhood – Helms Elementary and Hogg Middle – both of which were also on the probation list for magnet schools; there were a few others on both lists as well. I presume this list came out too late in the day to get a reaction from anyone for publication, but I’m sure that HISD’s leadership will focus its attention on that list. As I said, I hope it’s substantially smaller next year.

School finance trial do-over set to start soon

Once more into the breach.

Hundreds of school districts in North Texas and across the state will resume their courtroom battle over funding in January, arguing that new money and reduced testing did little to fix Texas’ school finance system.

State and legislative leaders contend changes they approved this year have blunted the districts’ arguments. But the more than 600 districts suing will urge state District Judge John Dietz to reissue his February 2013 ruling that ordered dramatic changes in funding of schools.

Dietz found the system fails to provide enough money for schools to educate all their students to meet the state constitution’s requirements. The judge also said funds are being distributed unfairly.

Dietz withheld his final ruling pending the Legislature’s action in the regular session that ended in late May.

Lawmakers restored much of the funding that was taken away from schools in the state budget crisis of 2011. The bulk of new money helped narrow the wide funding gaps between poor and rich districts. That was a key point of contention in the case.

They boosted funding by $3.4 billion, after a $5.4 billion cut in 2011, and sharply reduced the required high-stakes tests in high school.

But is that enough to sway Dietz and, ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court?

See here, here, here, and here for the background. To sum up, the state will argue that they restored a lot of the funds that were cut, they reduced the amount of tests that needed to be taken, and they prioritized restoring funds to the schools that had the lowest per-student funding rate. Plaintiffs will argue that school districts overall are still underfunded, that most of the tests were cut were ones that weren’t often taken anyway, that large funding disparities still exist, that school districts still have little to no ability to set their own tax rates because of mandated caps, and that very few resources exist for the growing number of non-native English speakers in the public schools. I personally think the plaintiffs have the stronger argument, but we’ll see. The next hearing is January 21.

What can we do to improve reading skills in HISD?

I wish I knew.

HISD students continue to struggle with reading while matching or exceeding their peers’ math performance in other big cities, according to national test data released Wednesday.

Reading scores for the district’s fourth- and eighth-graders have stagnated for six years. In math, however, the middle-school results have improved over time, and HISD ranks well against others nationwide.

The scores come from a battery of exams, typically called the Nation’s Report Card, that allow big urban districts that choose to participate to compare themselves.

“We are pleased that we continue to perform at high levels in mathematics and are concerned about the flat-line trending of our literacy rates,” said Dan Gohl, chief academic officer for the Houston Independent School District.

Gohl said he plans to present a revised plan for boosting reading skills to the school board in January. Campuses across the district use numerous programs to teach reading, he said, and the quality appears to vary. The differences also may trouble students who transfer schools mid-year.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders every two years. The latest results are from exams taken in early 2013. The other Texas districts that participate are those in Dallas and Austin.

The Houston Press had a cover story the other week about HISD’s reading scores, which look better than they are on the state accountability measures. A lot of big urban school districts have problems with reading scores, though there’s been a good deal of improvement in recent years. Poverty is a big factor – there’s a lot of research out there showing that poor children start out behind their peers even before they get to school – but it’s not the only factor. As our experience with Apollo has shown so far, we seem to have a handle on getting improvements to math scores, but reading is a much tougher nut to crack. We need to figure it out, and the sooner the better. Hair Balls and Washington Monthly have more.

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.

Back to court for the school finance lawsuit

Like deja vu all over again.

State district court Judge John Dietz likened the state’s school finance case to the soap opera As The World Turns when he opened Wednesday’s hearing on whether to reconsider evidence in the trial that concluded in February.

He drew the comparison not because of the trial’s drama but because of its longevity.

“There were 13,858 episodes of As The World Turns and we are getting pretty close,” Dietz said.

After hearing brief arguments from the state and the six parties in the case, the judge announced that a new six-week trial would begin on Jan. 6 in the lawsuit that arose last summer after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011 while the state simultaneously implemented a rigorous new testing and accountability system.

“The passage of the wealth of bills during this 83rd Legislature has created a situation where in the interests of justice we need to assay and concentrate as to whether that legislation changed the circumstances [we examined] during the 45-day trial,” Dietz said.

The two largest groups of school districts represented in the case, along with the state, were in favor of reopening evidence in the case to update the record after a legislative session in which the Legislature restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. Changes to high school testing and graduation requirements, as well as a bill expanding the state’s charter school system, also passed.

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to allow it to go to [Texas] Supreme Court. It’d be highly likely we’d be back in this court in six months,” said attorney Mark Trachtenberg, who represents some of the districts in the case. He argued that the high court would remand the decision if it did not consider the impact of the 2013 Legislature.

[…]

All of the parties will be back in court on July 17 to determine what procedures will govern the new trial.

See here for the last update. It makes sense to hash everything out again, since there were some significant changes made by the Legislature. I don’t know that what they did actually fixes the problems that Judge Dietz outlined, but to be sure the facts are different now, and there’s not much point in having the Supreme Court rule on a decision that is no longer current. So have at it one more time, y’all.

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.

Pauken for Governor

We have our first official non-fringe candidate for Governor next year.

Tom Pauken

Saying he hoped to reunite the “Reagan coalition of social and economic conservatives,” former Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken confirmed to the Tribune that he will file to run for governor in 2014.

“I like [Gov.] Rick Perry. I like [Attorney General] Greg Abbott,” said Pauken, a former chairman of the Texas Republican Party who also worked in the Reagan administration. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. One or both may run. I’m going to run on issues.”

Pauken’s intention to run for governor was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

He touted his recent work building support for education reform and emphasizing the importance of vocational training.

“On issues where there’s common ground, let’s bring Texans together,” he said.

Pauken said he wants to get a group together to look at the school finance system, which he said needs an overhaul. “We have a flawed Robin Hood system that was flawed from the beginning,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten better. It’s gotten worse.”

He said the state needed to focus its attention to essential services, such as its transportation infrastructure. He also said Texas needs to become less reliant on high property taxes, and he indicated that he is a strong proponent of term limits for statewide politicians.

“I also think there’s too much crony capitalism out there,” he said. “I think that’s a problem at the federal level, but I think it’s also a problem at the state level.”

Pauken has occasionally been a force for good, and he’s occasionally been a force for bad, which nevertheless gives him a higher batting average than either of the two main as-yet-unannounced contenders. What he’s saying here sounds altogether too reasonable to have any traction with the seething masses of the GOP primary electorate. I’m really hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which he comes out on top of either Perry or Abbott. I have no idea why he thinks he can win – maybe he’s rooting for Perry to step away and Abbott to stay put. Who knows? Anyway, good luck, and watch out for the Pauken-mentum.

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.

School finance system ruled unconstitutional

Surely no one is surprised by this.

The system Texas uses to fund public schools violates the state’s constitution by not providing enough money and failing to distribute the money in a fair way, a judge ruled Monday in a landmark decision that could force the Legislature to overhaul the way it pays for education.

Shortly after listening to closing arguments, Judge John Dietz called the funding mechanism unconstitutional. He has promised to issue a detailed, written decision soon. The trial took more than 240 hours in court and 10,000 exhibits to get this far.

Judge Dietz made the ruling in the last lawsuit, in 2005, and apparently referenced that in giving his decision from the bench. He will hand down his written opinion at a later date. There’s a ton more detail to come on this – for now, Twitter is your best reference; try searching hashtag #schoolfinancetrial – but I’m sure millions of words will follow elsewhere. So far what we do know is that Judge Dietz found in favor of the school districts on “property tax, equity, and adequacy claims”. He ruled that the cap on charter schools did not violate the constitution, saying that claim and the claims made by TREE are matters for the Legislature. Beyond that, we know that this will be appealed to the Supreme Court, we know that budget writers like Rep. Jim Pitts and Sen. Tommy Williams, along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, have spoken about setting some money aside in anticipation of such a ruling, and we know that unless the Supreme Court substantially reverses this ruling, there will be at least one special session next year. Fasten your seat belts, etc etc etc. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: Here’s coverage from the Observer and the Trib. I also have statements galore, from the CPPP, MALC, Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Sen. Rodney Ellis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Wendy Davis, Rep. Mike Villarreal, Rep. Carol Alvarado, Rep. Jessica Farrar, Rep. Donna Howard, and Texans Deserve Great Schools, who seem to be missing the point. Finally, I now have a copy of Judge Dietz’s ruling and the LBB chart mentioned in the ruling.

UPDATE: Stace has more reactions, and Lone Star Ma chimes in.

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.

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.

Early extension for Grier

This was a surprise.

Terry Grier

The Houston school board gave Superintendent Terry Grier a big but not unanimous vote of confidence Thursday, extending his contract through 2016 and awarding him $115,000 in bonuses for the last year.

The board voted 6-2 to approve the surprise two-year extension, and the lone absent trustee said later that she opposes the longer term.

Trustees supporting the extension said the move sends a strong message that Grier has performed well, while opponents lamented that the decision gives the board less leverage to hold him accountable.

[…]

The board’s action comes one month after voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.9 billion bond issue pushed by Grier. HISD also was a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

“His success in continuing to build and retain the world-class team he has created in Houston depends on top-notch people believing the superintendent has the confidence of his board and is here for the long term,” said trustee Harvin Moore.

Grier, who has run the state’s largest district for three years, said he was “pleased, honored and humbled by the board’s vote of confidence.”

“While we’ve made good progress, we have much work to do, and I’m very excited to be part of a school district and city that values consistent, rigorous education for all of its children,” he said.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche said she opposed the extension, particularly because it was only 10 months ago that the board agreed to extend Grier’s contract through 2014.

“We as a board have a tremendous responsibility of holding the superintendent accountable,” she said. “And if we’re consistently and chronically extending his contract, then the board cannot serve that function.”

I agree with Stipeche. I think Grier has generally done a good job, and it was right to extend his contract through 2014, but there was no reason to take this action now. What if we’re not as happy with the next two years? If it is the Board’s job to hold the Superintendent accountable, then the Board needs to wait until it has full information before undertaking a vote like this. They should have waited.

Grier’s bonus structure may be tweaked, too.

Several school board members said Friday, a day after granting Grier more job security, that they plan to discuss revising his new contract to increase the size of the bonuses he can earn. Grier received bonuses totaling $115,000 out of a possible $125,000 for his performance last year.

Houston Independent School District trustees declined to reveal the amounts they are considering but said they first want to revamp the criteria that determine the bonuses.

Grier’s base salary is $300,000, plus $19,200 in stipends for his car and cellphone. Several trustees said they don’t foresee giving Grier a standard raise – teachers received 2 percent this year – but instead will look to increase his bonus potential.

“What I think is appropriate is having a significant portion of his remuneration be based on performance,” said trustee Harvin Moore.

I’m okay with this, as long as the standards for achieving the bonuses make sense and are easy to quantify and understand. Let’s take a little more time with this, and put a little more thought into it, than we did with the contract extension, OK?

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.

Eight billion dollars

That’s how much is needed per year to make public education whole.

Lynn Moak

Lynn Moak told state District Judge John Dietz that it will take more than $8 billion a year in additional money to get students on target to graduate and to meet new college and career readiness standards. About 150,000 9th-grade students, or 47 percent of last year’s freshman high school class, are not on track to graduate, according to the state’s more rigorous academic standards, Moak told the court.

“We are in a current crisis. The crisis gets worse in the future,” Moak said during a break in the hearing. “The crisis is sufficient now to demand action.”

[…]

Moak told Dietz it will take about $6 billion in additional money per year to adequately educate Texas students, on top of restoring $2.65 billion per year in education cuts that lawmakers made last year to help balance the budget.

“If we don’t see improvement, you will see even larger numbers of students at risk of not being able to graduate,” Moak told the judge, who said he planned to grill policy experts on both sides.

[…]

The new accountability standards are hitting low-income students the hardest. Only 40 percent of them have passed all of the 9th grade tests, which are required for high school graduation.

The number of low-income students increases each year and now makes up more than 60 percent of Texas’ 5 million K-12 public school enrollment. Low-income students generally cost more to educate because many arrive in kindergarten or first grade with less-developed vocabularies and other skills than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Republican legislators last year cut $4 billion from public education formulas and another $1.3 billion in special grants, such as full-day Pre K programs for low-income children and student success initiatives for tutoring and summer school programs to help struggling students.

Moak said he could not assess the impact on schools and students.

“I do not know of any significant legislative review to determine if these programs were not needed or were not producing good results,” he said.

Spending per student in Texas peaked at $7,415 in 2009, and has dropped to $6,293 in 2013, Moak said.

I don’t expect there to be any significant legislative review. I don’t think the authors of these cuts want to know what their effect was. The Statesman notes that while only 40 percent of low-income kids are passing the required tests, 69% of non-economically disadvantaged students are passing. You can expect that gap to grow.

All this came from direct testimony – the state had not had the chance to cross-examine Moak as of the writing of those stories – so there will likely be more of these depressing numbers to come. The Moak, Casey website is a pretty good resource for following the trial on a blow-by-blow basis. Here’s an interesting tidbit from their embedded Twitter feed: “Moak: from 10-11 to 11-12 school year, 26.5k fewer teachers and staff while Texas schools added 44.5k students #schoolfinancetrial #txlege”. With numbers like that, what happened next should not surprise us.

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.

Fort Bend ISD goes BYOD

Students in the Fort Bend Independent School District may now bring their own mobile device to class to connect to the school’s WiFi and be part of the curriculum.

Fort Bend ISD’s policy allows students to use electronic devices to access the WiFi network in the classroom.

Before this year, the district forbade cellphone use on campus, and any technology use required permission from administrators. The policy follows a similar Katy ISD program, begun last school year. And Spring ISD has launched a pilot project this year at a high school and two middle schools.

Teachers have incorporated smartphones into math lessons by replacing flash cards with game apps and creating class blogs for language arts classes, where students question each other about their assigned reading. Students can also use smartphones in class to take pictures of concepts on the chalk board or to take part in class polls.

Jarret Reid Whitaker, the executive director of the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice University, said the “bring your own device” trend is catching on around the state.

“This is an area that every district will have to face,” Whitaker said. “I think right now the only issue of concern raised is making sure students use it appropriately.”

Critics have pointed to insufficient evidence of a link between more access to technology and student success. Others note the potential for more cheating and the temptation to use the devices for non-academic purposes.

The Aldine Independent School District altered its strict cellphone policy this year to allow devices at school, although they must be turned off at all times. The Houston Independent School District still forbids cellphone use in its classrooms.

FBISD had a pilot iPad program last year, so this is presumably an extension of that; McAllen ISD is also using iPads in a big way. I think this is a good idea, assuming that every teacher still has the right to set their own policies in their classrooms. There’s a debate that the story touches on about the devices being a distraction and an enabler of cheating, and that there’s no evidence as yet that the use of such devices improves test scores. I get that, and again I believe no teacher should be required to use technology they don’t like or don’t believe makes their jobs easier, but I think not taking advantage of mobile devices where possible is like what ignoring would have been like 20 years ago. Smartphones, iPads, and the like are part of kids’ worlds these days, and they’re where all of the innovation is happening in computing. If we’re serious about wanting to graduate students who are ready for the challenges of the job market they’ll be facing, I don’t see how we can ignore such a key component to that market. As for the point about not improving test scores, all I can say is that even if there’s a sufficient body of research to make firm conclusions for technology that’s only been in existence for a couple of years, if this is our excuse for not integrating new technology into the classroom then we really are putting too much emphasis on standardized tests. I think school districts need to figure this out and get on with it, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the Lege makes them do it whether they want to or not. Better to get started on it now, if you ask me.

Hammond pushes back on Pauken

After I read Patti Hart’s column about Tom Pauken and his anti-standardized testing quest, I noted the absence of a mention of uber-testing advocate Bill Hammond. Hammond has no trouble talking about Pauken, however.

Tom Pauken, former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, said in The Texas Tribune that he wants to change the state’s new accountability system because somehow that will help youngsters get technical jobs. He is wrong.

We do indeed need to get more youngsters ready for all sorts of jobs, including those in technical and manufacturing fields. But it is the old system that has failed to prepare students for both college and career. That is why we passed House Bill 3, legislation that has led to standards, testing and accountability that align perfectly with getting young people ready for the full spectrum of good jobs and opportunity. Give the change a chance to work, please!

Readers of the Tribune also have seen the views of a professor who opposes accountability. Based upon opinions with no grounding in peer review or published research, Walter Stroup attacked the theory behind state testing. It turns out that the theory he attacked has been established in research for more than 50 years, used in the best assessments in the world and designed to be sure that the tests are unbiased and fair. The tests, it turns out, are indeed quite sensitive to learning the state’s fine new standards.

In the face of all of the naysayers, we must stay the course. But staying the course does not mean that our new reforms are perfect. If there are tweaks that are needed, let us make them. If there are transitions that are needed, let us have those transitions. Business and civic leaders must listen to and work with educators who are ready to take responsibility and move forward with a proper implementation of these policies.

Testing now! Testing forever! Insert macho rallying cry here! Woo hoo!

Well, I guess that appeals to some people. Personally, I think we could do with a little reflection, and a little more balance. But I’m just a guy with two kids in the public schools. What do I know?

Pauken on testing

Patricia Kilday Hart has a conversation with Texas Workforce Commission Chair Tom Pauken about testing and accountability in public schools.

Tom Pauken

As a Texas Workforce Commissioner, Pauken has spent a lot of time studying whether our public school system prepares an educated workforce.

His conclusion? The focus on college-prep and testing has, well, “left behind” kids who would be better served earning an industrial certificate that would snag them a good job with a middle-class income.

Right now, “Help Wanted” signs across Texas beg for trained workers in welding, machinist, electrical or commercial trucking fields. But our college-centered school system – measured incessantly by tests – isn’t producing an adequate pool of applicants.

“I don’t think this teaching to the test benefits anyone,” said Pauken. “It is taking away from learning.”

Does every student need to be college ready? “We need multiple pathways to high school education,” he said. One pathway would be getting ready for college; another would be “career-oriented, with an emphasis on an industrial credential.”

Students who aren’t inclined to pursue college simply give up and drop out of school, Pauken says.

“It’s self-defeating. There are blue-collar jobs out there,” said Pauken. And more to come soon: “The average age of a welder is 50. This is a huge opportunity for young people, and it pays well.”

Pauken hopes to persuade the Texas Legislature to make sweeping changes to our education system when it meets in January – beginning with the acknowledgement that some students are not well-served by a strictly college-prep curriculum.

I agree with what Pauken says about the need for more vocational education, a subject he discusses at greater length in this Statesman editorial. I daresay most people would agree with that, and with the idea that there ought to be more than one pathway to educational success. I’ve interviewed a lot of candidates for various offices and asked them questions about public education and college readiness and standardized testing, and I’ve yet to hear one say that we need less vocational education. If Pauken has a strategy to achieve his stated goals then more power to him. I’m wondering what his plan is to overcome accountability absolutists like Bill Hammon and TAB, as they are unlikely to back off their no-retreat-on-testing stance. I wish Hart had explored that in her column, since it is potentially a critical story line for the 2013 Lege, but I suppose we’ll hear plenty about it before all is said and done. EoW has more.

Focusing on reading

This sounds promising.

When HISD Superintendent Terry Grier took charge three years ago, he quickly latched onto a troubling statistic: roughly 70,000 of the district’s students were not reading at grade level.

Students who should have learned reading basics by third grade continue to enter middle and high school stumbling over words and struggling with comprehension.

As Houston Independent School District students return to class Monday, some of them – the weakest readers in sixth and ninth grades – will prepare for a crash course to catch them up. The students will take a newly designed reading class daily or every other day in addition to their regular language arts course.

“These children dropped through the cracks during their experience with us or with other school districts,” Grier said.

HISD’s approach, if it works, could serve as a national model for districts trying to help older students who don’t read well, said Marybeth Flachbart, president of the Neuhaus Education Center, a Houston nonprofit that specializes in reading instruction.

HISD has contracted with Neuhaus to train teachers for the new reading classes – refreshing them on phonics and other fundamentals, plus giving them tips for teaching basic skills to teenagers.

[…]

Grier and the school board began focusing on improving literacy last year, sending elementary school teachers to training at Neuhaus to try to keep future students from entering sixth grade with reading problems. Since January 2011, the district has paid Neuhaus more than $3.6 million – money Grier said is well spent.

I certainly agree with the emphasis on improving reading scores. As the story notes, students from lower income families, and there are many within HISD, tend to start school knowing fewer words than students from more affluent households. That puts them behind from the beginning, and presents increasing challenges every year. I look forward to seeing what effect this program has on the standardized test scores. I’d also like to hear from anyone who’s had experience with this particular program. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of it. Thanks!