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standardized testing

Some children left behind

Oops.

Nearly half the public schools across Texas failed to meet tougher federal academic standards this year, according to preliminary data released Wednesday.

The failures spiked sharply from last year, when a quarter of the state’s schools missed the mark.

Nearly all the districts in the Houston area earned failing grades under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, prompting increased calls from educators to change the law.

Those that fell short include the largest in the area: Alief, Aldine, Clear Creek, Conroe, Cypress-Fairbanks, Houston, Humble, Fort Bend, Katy, Klein, Spring and Spring Branch.

The local districts that met the standard – called “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP – include Friendswood, Lamar Consolidated, Sheldon, Tomball and Waller.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, urged parents not to panic.

“Parents need to think about all the other information they know about their schools when they judge the quality of them,” she said. “This year to meet AYP schools had to be performing at the equivalent of about a B-plus level, and that’s a long way from failing.”

In one sense, this doesn’t mean much of anything, since Congressional dysfunction has prevented the passage of needed updates to the original law. In another sense, this is a glimpse of what’s about to happen as the state’s tougher accountability measures kick in. I picked a great time to have school-age kids, didn’t I? The Trib has more, and a statement from the Texas AFT is beneath the fold.

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TAB takes a hostage

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAAR pushback

The House Public Ed committee gets an earful.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The Trib has more on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a great start for the STAAR tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are the end of course standards too low?

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

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

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

‘False sense of security’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another story about parents and education cuts

I really want to believe that there’s an uprising in the works and that the Lege could be a very different place for the better next year, but I’m reserving judgment on that for now.

Deep cuts in school funding approved by the Texas Legislature last summer could energize angry parents in a way similar to how the tea party movement mobilized conservatives in 2010. In the 150-seat state House alone, at least 29 candidates who are current or former school board members, or have other education experience, are challenging incumbents or vying for open seats in the May 29 primary.

Seventeen are Republicans and 12 are Democrats — and most are pledging to fix Texas’ broken school finance system and dial back the importance of high-stakes standardized tests.

A possible education backlash has [Rep. Marva] Beck nervous and another incumbent, West Texas Republican Rep. Sid Miller, facing a primary challenge that could be tougher than expected. Among several candidates vying for an open seat in suburban Dallas, meanwhile, is Bennett Ratliff, scion of a well-known Texas political family who says his education background sets him apart from a crowded field.

“Funding is not the whole issue, but you can’t continue to cut, and continue to cut, and continue to cut. At some point it does become about funding,” said Ratliff, a Republican and nine-year veteran of the school board in Coppell, northwest of Dallas. His father is former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and his brother Thomas is on the state Board of Education.

Beck and Miller, who was the author of the sonogram bill, are both awful and richly deserve to be ousted, but I’m not prepared to believe that their opponents will be measurably better, even if we just confine the discussion to the issue of public education. At this point, anything short of a commitment to restore the $5.4 billion in funding that was cut from education plus a commitment to work on closing the structural budget hole caused by the 2006 tax swap leaves too much room for the same old same old. I’m glad there’s something out there other than the nihilists that can put some fear into these guys, I just want to see it translate into better votes.

Carolyn Boyle heads the Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which in 2006 supported at least 10 candidates who unseated incumbents or captured open seats. This year, the PAC has conducted more than 25 interviews with pro-education candidates and will endorse an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

“This could be a game-changer election,” Boyle said. “There are so many candidates with rich education experience.”

Republicans hold a 102-seat super majority in the Texas House and while they will likely lose as many as 10 seats due to redistricting, they will maintain control. But next year they take a different tack.

As I said before, being an educator is nice but hardly sufficient. I love what ParentPAC does and I’ll be keeping a close eye on their endorsements this year – so far, I have received emails announcing their endorsements of Republicans Trent Ashby in HD57, Ed Thompson in HD29, Roger Fisher in HD92, Susan Todd in HD97, Amber Fulton in HD106, Jason Villalba in HD114, Bennett Ratliff in HD115, and Whet Smith in HD138; they have also endorsed Democrat Justin Rodriguez in HD125 – but I have not forgotten that all of their previous Republican endorsees marched off the cliff with the rest of their party last year. Not a one as far as I can tell argued against the cuts to education – hell, not a one as far as I can tell argued against the twice-as-big education cuts that were in the House budget. How do I know that once they’ve been elected they won’t take Rick Perry’s budget suicide pledge and give us more of what we got last time? I really really hope I’m being overwrought about this, because we’re not getting a Democratic majority any time soon and we need there to be at least a decent contingent of pro-education Republicans in Austin, but I’m not seeing what I want in the rhetoric just yet.

Republican Mike Jones is a former college instructor and member of the school board in Glen Rose, southwest of Fort Worth, who calls fully funding school districts a centerpiece of his campaign. He says it has raised the profile of his challenge of Miller — a one-time vocational teacher himself who voted in favor of the school cuts.

“It’s like the school district is a Chevy Suburban and it’s been driven by a superintendent … then the state comes and saddles them with a 40,000 pound trailer on the back end of it and starts blaming the Suburban or the principals or the teachers or the kids,” Jones said. “It’s not their fault it’s that trailer put on there. It’s the unfunded mandates and the testing.”

Jones and others have also seized on what they call the state’s over-reliance on standardized testing, which districts are forced to prepare their students for more rigorously than ever despite budgets cuts.

I’m glad to hear this and I agree with what Jones is saying, but it doesn’t take much political courage these days to be anti-standardized testing. I’m happy for these candidates to pursue a more balanced testing policy – as the parent of a rising third-grader, I’ll be delighted to have less to worry about on this score – but let’s not confuse that with a solution for the school finance problem. We may find some savings there, but it’ll be little more than couch cushion money. Dialing back the standardized tests is worth doing on its own merits, but it’s a separate issue from the main event of education funding.

Are you smarter than a Texas high school student?

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

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

The “Moneyball” approach to public education

Via Lisa Falkenberg on Facebook, SBOE member Thomas Ratliff uses the philosophy from Moneyball to analyze the accountability system for Texas public schools.

The poster boy for the book

The book says, “One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks.”

In Texas public schools, you absolutely cannot tell the difference between an exemplary school district, a recognized district or an acceptable district simply by watching. The difference can be the performance of a small subset of students on one test on one day in the 180-day school year. This is a byproduct of our accountability system.

The book says, “The problem is that baseball statistics are not pure accomplishments of men against other men, which is what we are in the habit of seeing them as. They are accomplishments of men in combination with their circumstances.”

The accountability system doesn’t care about circumstances. It generates a report that shows how students did on a test, period. This is measuring the accomplishments of students against other students. We must change our accountability system to measure student performance in combination with their circumstances. Not all children enter or exit public schools with the same circumstances. We absolutely cannot have the same expectations for all of them, nor should we measure them all in the same manner. There are different definitions of success that involve academics, athletics, career and technology, community service, the arts, and the list goes on and on.

The book says, “I am a mechanic with numbers, tinkering with the records of baseball games to see how the machinery of the baseball offense works. I do not start with the numbers any more than a mechanic starts with a monkey wrench. I start with the game, with the things that I can see and the things people say, and I ask: Is it true?”

Our accountability system is designed to measure career and college readiness. The question is, “Is it true?” Does it predict career and college readiness? I believe it does not. My proof? To my knowledge, there are very few, if any, colleges or universities in the United States that look at TAKS test scores as part of a student’s application. If the accountability system and the state’s standardized test measured college readiness, wouldn’t you think colleges would look at it? Similarly, I’m not aware of a single business in the state of Texas that asks for TAKS test scores as part of the job application process. Again, if the system predicted career readiness, wouldn’t Texas employers use this as a part of evaluating prospective employees? We need an accountability system that takes a broader look at a student’s K-12 education and provides a measurement that will be useful to colleges, universities and employers.

Just for the record, it was the movie Bull Durham that first made the observation about being a .300 hitter. Be that as it may, a couple of points. One, while everyone talks about the statistics when discussing “Moneyball”, the central insight that Billy Beane had wasn’t just that on-base percentage and slugging average correlated better to winning than batting average does, it’s that (at the time, at least) those skills were valued less in the marketplace than batting average was. As a low-budget team, the A’s needed to take advantage of market inefficiencies like that to overcome their financial disadvantage. That’s beyond the scope of Ratliff’s analogy, but as this was the most misunderstood part of the book, it needs to be said.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I think Ratliff is on to something here. Is it true that TAKS scores correlate to success in college? More to the point, do TAKS scores correlate better than other available measures to success in college? I don’t know, and it’s not clear to me that anyone else does, or at least that anyone in a position of authority does. This is an easy enough question to answer, if we’re tracking how students ultimately fare in college. Let’s crunch the numbers and see what we get. Maybe TAKS scores are a good metric. Maybe there’s something else, like writing ability or extracurricular participation, that correlates better. Maybe we’ll find that external factors like a family’s income level and prior educational attainment are better predictors than any standardized test we can come up with. We won’t know until we hold our accountability systems accountable.

Make sure you measure everything

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Teacher evaluations

HISD is gearing up to implement a new teacher evaluation system, but not without a fight first.

The Houston Federation of Teachers has launched what is expected to be a protracted battle to void the new evaluation. It starts with a hearing Wednesday before an attorney, who will hear evidence from the union and the district administration.

Union president Gayle Fallon said she anticipates losing but vows to appeal to the Texas education commissioner. The case could set a state precedent for districts that tinker with how they rate teachers.

“We have some really good arguments,” said the union’s attorney, Martha Owen. “I’m hesitant to predict (the outcomes). The commissioner hasn’t ruled in cases like this.”

[…]

Fallon contends that the Houston Independent School District violated state law in designing the evaluation. Among other problems, she argues, the district didn’t sufficiently take teacher input into account.

Texas law says districts may deviate from the state appraisal if the replacement is “developed by” district and school committees made up of teachers and community members. At least 87 percent of districts use the state model, according to the Texas Education Agency.

HISD officials and their consultants at The New Teacher Project have said they involved 2,600 teachers and 1,500 administrators, parents and community members in designing the appraisal. District- and school-level committees met and teachers could fill out online surveys.

I know I discussed the challenges of evaluating teachers when I interviewed Gayle Fallon last year. I don’t think we really have a handle on what the “best” way to do this is. I guess the way I look at this is this: How much faith do you have in the employee evaluation system they have where you work? Obviously, there has to be some way to do this, but if the people who are being evaluated by it don’t have faith in it, isn’t that a problem?

HISD approves tougher teacher evaluation plan

I have some concerns about this.

Teachers in the Houston Independent School District next year will face tougher job evaluations that grade them on their students’ test scores under a nationally watched plan that trustees approved Thursday.

The 7-2 vote did not shift from last month when the board gave initial approval to the evaluation system, thrusting HISD into the national debate over the best way to rate teachers as a way to improve public schools.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has pushed for the use of test scores to hold teachers more accountable, applauded the nation’s seventh-largest district for its plan.

“The new system uses multiple measures and incorporates student academic growth in a thoughtful and balanced way,” Duncan said. “Houston is providing a model for the state and other districts to follow.”

HISD’s two main teacher groups oppose parts of the plan, particularly the use of certain test data and the fast rollout.

I would have preferred to see a smaller rollout of this first, to get a better understanding of what the issues are before subjecting everyone to it. There’s also the fact that academic research on the effectiveness of these methods is mixed. Chron reporter Ericka Mellon does a great job rounding up some of the results from various studies here. One thing caught my eye:

[I]f you have 12 minutes, Jonah Rockoff, a business professor at Columbia University, gives a good explanation of value added and sums up the debate. His position: Value-added, a method about as reliable as batting averages in baseball, is fair to use as one part of teachers’ job evaluations.

There’s a video embedded with that explanation, which I have not yet had the time to watch. The irony, if that’s a direct quote, is that as any baseball stathead knows, batting average is actually quite unreliable in the sense that it tends to fluctuate from year to year. You remember what Crash Davis said in Bull Durham about the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter is one seeing-eye grounder a week? It’s absolutely true, and the research there shows that the year-to-year correlation for batting average is considerably lower than things like isolated power and walk rate. I’ll have to watch the video to see how Professor Rockoff meant that statement, but if that’s what we’re relying on then folks have a reason to be skeptical. School Zone and Hair Balls have more.

Lege loosens graduation requirements

A sign of the times.

The Texas House tentatively approved legislation Wednesday to make it easier for high school students to pass end-of-course exams, a move critics called “a substantial retreat” from school accountability.

“This bill creates a clear, understandable path to graduation,” House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said of his bill, HB 500.

Business and education reform groups complained the legislation would weaken efforts to make sure all high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

Here’s HB500, which received final passage by a 138-5 margin on Thursday. Here’s the Trib on some key aspects of the bill:

The idea behind Eissler’s bill is to provide a transition period for students as schools move from the TAKS to the STAAR tests — whose more rigorous standards some believe could lead to large numbers of students failing to meet graduation requirements. Right now, students can’t graduate unless they get a certain cumulative score across all the year-end tests. Fifteen percent of their final grades is based on how well they do on those tests. HB 500 does away with those requirements, instead allowing districts to set their own policy on how end-of-course exams weigh in student assessment. Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said his bill was about “trying to get out of the micromanaging of school business from Austin” and vehemently denied accusations from his colleagues that it weakened school standards.

Three amendments from state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, were adopted from the floor. One prevented double-testing for fifth and eighth grade students taking advanced courses. Another, in an allusion to this summer’s Texas Projection Measure kerfuffle, specified that the Texas Education Agency could not use a projected achievement level to measure student growth. The last allows districts to opt into a pilot program to study whether students are “overtested.” Hochberg said that there is “pretty clear data” that show that if students pass a test one year, they are more than likely to pass it the next. “If we know they are going to pass that test, why are we going to continue to test them?” he asked. (Hochberg’s HB 233, co-sponsored by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would implement this policy statewide.)

I’ve blogged about HB233 before. It’s a good idea. Abby Rapoport has some more details and context.

School districts had fought for the bill—House Bill 500—which was carried by Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. But amendments prompted heated discussions about just what role testing should play in school assessments. And the coalitions for and against were anything but predictable.

The measure centered around the new STAAR tests, the soon-to-be-implemented statewide school assessments set to replace the current TAKS tests. Eissler’s bill would give school districts an opportunity to cut students some slack while students adjust to the new testing system. If the districts so chose, for a transitional period, a student’s STARR test performance wouldn’t necessarily count toward their final grade in a course. Districts could set their own policy on just how much the assessments count for a student’s grade. The bill also allows districts to suspend a new graduation requirement that students maintain a cumulative passing rate on 12 exams in four subject areas. Instead students would only have to pass four exams total—English III and algebra, specifically as well as one in science and one in social studies.

I don’t have a fully formed opinion of this bill yet. Mostly, I agree with Rapoport in that this bill won’t have nearly the effect on student performance that the budget will. Maybe when we’re at a point of fully funding education again, we can revisit this and see if it’s still needed. Until then, the budget is the cause and everything else is effects.

Should we do away with school police forces?

Grits makes the case.

If public school budgets will be radically cut in Texas, a prospect which for the moment appears all but inevitable, which employees should be eliminated first? Judging from the ongoing debate, maybe campus cops. Jason Embry at the Austin Statesman describes some of the debates surrounding school budgets thusly:

One of the most important dividing lines in the discussion about the state’s budget crisis separates those who think Texas schools need more money and those who think schools just need to make better spending decisions.

Those in the second group have some powerful numbers on their side. In a December report, Comptroller Susan Combs found that per-student spending increased 63 percent over the previous decade. That growth rate was nearly twice as fast as inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, and it points to a Texas school system that isn’t starving for cash.

Another statistic in wide circulation these days says Texas school districts employ about as many nonteachers as teachers. This has led many to suggest that, even as lawmakers consider billions of dollars’ worth of funding cuts to schools, local education officials can balance the books without shedding teachers.

I’ve not seen hard data, but based on anecdotal accounts I’d suggest that the growing number and size of school-based police forces likely account for a big chunk of growth among nonteacher school employees in the last decade. Shouldn’t they be among the first to get the budget axe? They’re the only sizable class of school employees we know for sure they can do without because schools did so for most of their history in Texas and elsewhere. The phenomenon of campus-based police departments is something that’s really only arisen en masse in the last 20 or so years in Texas public schools.

He notes that Sen. John Whitmire has advocated greatly reducing the amount of tickets that school cops write, which would fit well with this idea. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of savings in this – as I reported before, according the HISD Trustee Anna Eastman, HISD budgets $13.5 million for its police force, of which 95% is personnel costs. That ain’t nothing – it’s 270 teachers, assuming $50K per year in salaries – but it’s less than eight percent of the optimistic-case $171 million projected shortfall. Maybe it would be more in some other ISDs, I don’t know. I think there’s merit to the idea, and not just for budgetary reasons, I’m just trying to keep perspective on it. What do you think?

On a side note, I can’t leave this subject without pointing you to Martha’s posts about why schools need more support staff, not less, and why gutting educational service centers are a bad idea. That Jason Embry article linked by Grits also gets down to it:

In 2000, 49 percent of Texas students were considered economically disadvantaged. In 2010, that number reached 59 percent. These students often need extra attention as they move through the system.

As the student population has changed, Texas has continued to pile more demands on schools, and it costs money to meet those demands. Schools began giving the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a much tougher exam than its predecessor, in 2003, and began that year to require students in the third grade to pass the reading section of the test to advance to fourth grade. Today the test is tied to promotion in grades five and eight. In addition, students who used to graduate from Texas high schools with three credits in math and three in science now must have four credits in each. To meet these demands, schools have spent more on student remediation, teacher training and the renovation of science labs.

Schools are preparing to give a new test next year, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which the Texas Education Agency has promised “will be significantly more rigorous than previous tests.” And let’s not forget that, led by our last governor, the federal government created an additional set of accountability measures for schools to meet during the past 10 years.

The increasing demands on students have put more demands on teachers and principals, particularly considering the state’s heavy emphasis on standardized testing to judge schools.

Districts across the state have therefore decided to hire instructional coordinators, curriculum specialists and others to give students extra attention and to help teachers make sure their lessons help students meet the escalating expectations.

In other words, yes, schools spend more than they used to. But the people of Texas also ask their schools to do more than they used to.

Funny how that latter part always seems to get overlooked by the “schools have too many administrators” crowd. In addition, as BOR notes, the cost of administering TAKS tests in Texas increased tenfold from 1999 to 2009. There’s been way too much talk in this debate about what schools do or don’t need by people who probably haven’t stepped foot in a public school in forty years, and it’s drowning out those who are there every day trying their best to make it all work. Martha’s a fine example of the latter, so please go see what she has to say.

Hochberg’s plan for less testing

A new bill filed by State Rep. Scott Hochberg that would exempt students who easily passed standardized tests one year from taking them the next, makes all kinds of sense.

The bill, co-authored by Hochberg and freshman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, would exempt fourth graders from taking the state’s standardized tests if they passed their third grade tests by a large margin. Similarly, students in sixth and seventh grade wouldn’t have to take the tests if they passed by a healthy margin in fifth grade. While the measure wouldn’t save the state much money, it would save local districts a lot in test preparation, while putting a larger focus on those students who barely passed or failed their exams. Using giant posters of data, Hochberg pointed out that students who do well on the tests one year will very likely pass the following year.

“If we know these kids are going to pass, why are we giving them the test?” asked Hochberg, the House guru of all things education and data-related. Currently, he says, school districts can rely on their high achievers to boost test scores and inflate a school’s ratings. That allows the struggling kids to fall between the cracks. This bill would shift that emphasis, as schools would be judged based more heavily on how they equipped their low performers.

“It shines a laser beam on those kids who are below grade level,” Hochberg said.

Huberty, a conservative Republican who just left the Humble school board to come to the House, concurred. He argued the districts currently spend too much time and money on testing, particulary when those children who already did well one year will almost undoubtedly will pass again.

For proof, Hochberg—by far the nerdiest House member—turned to the numbers. Of those students who passed their reading and math assessments by a large margin in fourth grade, over 97 percent passed again in fifth grade. The numbers were even more compelling among middle schoolers. Over 98 percent of seventh graders who passed their assessments by a large margin in math and reading passed again in eighth grade. Meanwhile of those fourth graders who failed their tests, less than 40 percent passed the following year.

“It really sheds the light on this group of kids who are the ones who are likely to become dropouts as things go on,” Hochberg said told the handful of reporters.

The bill is HB233, and you can read about it in Hochberg’s own words here. There are two other Republicans signed onto the bill – Rick Hardcastle and Jim Keffer – which one hopes bodes well for its chances. I’ll be interested to see if there’s any real opposition to this, because offhand I can’t think of a reason why you’d oppose it/ We’ll see what happens.

Where’s the money for new textbooks coming from?

Nobody knows just yet.

Neither legislative chamber’s base budget appropriates funds for any new textbooks. The primary concern in the short term is funding for science materials that reflect the 2009 curriculum changes made by the State Board of Education. Those changes are significant, according to Patsy McGee, a Beaumont school district science supervisor and past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas.

The new, more rigorous testing regimen — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness system — emphasizes college readiness and will count toward students’ graduation requirements.

Twelve mandatory exams for high schoolers will be phased in over the next four years; the class of 2015 will be the first to complete the full STAAR program.

Last fall, the State Board of Education, recognizing the likelihood of a state revenue shortfall, asked the Legislature for supplemental science materials that would reflect the curriculum changes and be available online only. By going the digital route, the price tag for the materials dropped from $347 million to $60 million.

In total, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott is asking for about $520 million in updated instructional materials for the fall, for the online science materials and for new language arts materials based on standards also recently altered.

[…]

The Texas Education Agency intends to press on with the new testing, textbooks or not, and, barring action from the Legislature, is required by law to do just that.

Since the possibility of high-stakes testing without updated instructional materials became real, Scott has repeatedly warned that students might have legal grounds to sue districts or the state for failing to provide them with an opportunity to learn the subject matter on which testing is based.

At a board meeting in September, Scott said providing the materials is “an absolute moral and legal imperative.”

Seems to me there are only two possible choices here. The Lege can suck it up, find the money, and buy the textbooks and supplemental materials needed for the new STAAR tests (for which incoming high school freshmen this fall will be responsible), or admit that they’re incapable of doing so and push back the start date on STAAR until they can do it. The latter would be a stark admission that student performance will be affected by the budget cuts, so I take Sen. Florence Shapiro, who is quoted in the story saying getting this funded is a high priority for her, at her word. How they’re going to square that with all of the swaggering “no new revenue” talk, I have no idea. Reality is a harsh mistress.

The state of HISD

HISD SUperintendent Terry Grier gave his state of the school district speech this week.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced plans Thursday to toughen the district’s curriculum and to expand access to college-caliber courses despite tight financial times.

Grier, in his second-annual State of the Schools speech, said slowing down academic reforms — when less than 20 percent of the district’s students are deemed ready for college – would be “morally unacceptable” and “economically irresponsible.”

“We must understand that the challenge ahead of us is monumental,” Grier said, noting looming cuts in state funding. “And, yes, we may have to do more with less, but frankly we can’t demand a no-excuses attitude from our students if we adults aren’t willing to embrace that philosophy as well.”

Grier, who has focused heavily on low-performing schools in his first 18 months on the job, said the entire district needs a more challenging, engaging curriculum that goes beyond Texas’ requirements and reflects national and international standards.

The story quoted Rice sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who said that Grier “gets it” about the importance of educating kids from low income families. Some other folks such as Margaret Downing of the Houston Press were less impressed.

In a State of the Schools luncheon speech that started about an hour later than predicted, Grier unveiled nothing especially new, at least not to people who work for the district and/or follow the school board and district news. He reflected on the usual glories of the past year (national recognition for some HISD schools and students), named the challenges (massive budget cuts, students not performing on grade level) and rallied the troops to avoid “the path of low expectations.”

You can see more about the speech, including a link to the full text and a statement from HISD Board President Paula Harris here. Beyond that, there are no other opinions of the speech, so not having seen him deliver it myself I don’t know how well it was received. Regardless of how much new ground he broke in the address, it’s still the case that Grier will ultimately be judged by results. If a few years from now it’s the consensus that performance is up, Grier will be lauded as a success. If not, it could get ugly. Anyone want to place a bet?

Performance pay for teachers

I’m very wary of this.

Pay for Texas public school teachers should be connected to appraisals of their work and other factors instead of the 60-year-old salary schedule based on seniority, former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and other school reformers said Monday.

They want more flexibility for school districts to base teacher pay on performance, professional development and educator career paths. The state’s severe budget shortfall creates an opportunity to dramatically reform public education by taking away state control, they say.

“Let’s get a compensation system that makes sense. Let’s get rid of the 60-year structure and relegate it to the Smithsonian where it belongs,” said Paige, the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District before President George W. Bush appointed him to head the U.S. Department of Education.

[…]

The recommendations come from a report, “A Teacher Compensation Strategy for Excellence in the Texas Classroom,” by Chris Patterson for the Texas Institute for Education Reform.

Michael Aradillas, who helps organize about 1,600 Texas members of the American Federation of Teachers who work for Northside Independent School District, said he can appreciate the ideas coming out of Austin but wishes teachers were included in the conversation.

“A good launching point for all of that would be to say, ‘Let’s first start a dialogue and let’s include the teachers in the thought process of how they’re going to be compensated,” Aradillas said. “If it’s going to be a one-sided conversation then it’s going to be a one-sided evaluation. And that can, potentially, lead to unfair pay.”

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but everyone should take a moment to read Joel Spolsky’s essay about incentive pay and performance reviews. There may well be merit to allowing local districts to make their own decisions about salaries, and I don’t have any problems with scrutinizing how we do things in any context to see how we can do them better. My point is simply that any system of teacher pay we might transition to will have its own set of inefficiencies and inequities, and we ought to have our eyes open about that. And let’s be honest: In this context, the main driving factor behind any change to how we pay teachers will be cost cutting. Yes, reducing everyone’s pay a little is better than firing a huge number of teachers. But we all know that once their pay is reduced, it’s never going to get restored when times get better. We should be clear about what we’re doing.

The other point that should be made is that any performance-based pay scheme is going to be highly dependent on standardized test results. Don’t be surprised when people figure out ways to game that. If you think we might be leaning a little too heavily on standardized tests in the curriculum now, going this route will make them even more important. And the current shortfall is likely to have an effect on the new standardized tests that are in the pipeline.

The [Senate Education Committee] also took up the possibility of delaying the roll-out of STAAR, the state’s new achievement exams, a proposition popular with school officials. “If we need to put a pause on this testing because we don’t have the resources, you need to tell us,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who said he didn’t want to see “a bunch of ethnic minority kids being left behind” because the state couldn’t pay for the instructional materials to teach them what’s on the new tests.

[Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert] Scott said the agency is on track to implement STAAR, but added that if the new instructional materials weren’t funded in the final budget, it would affect students’ performance on the exams.

[Committee Chair Sen. Florence] Shapiro came out firmly in favor of keeping STAAR on track: “I want to make sure we don’t use the budget as an excuse to delay something that we’ve been working on for five years. … Let’s look at it as we are bringing rigor and more efficiency and effectiveness into the classroom, bringing meaningful and rich instruction for the first time.”

How fair do you think performance-based pay would be under these circumstances? Abby Rapoport has more.

The coming cuts to public education

We know that public education is a huge part of the state’s budget, and in the absence of any willingness on the part of the Republicans to ensure that it’s properly funded, we know there will be cuts coming. How deep, and what form they take, no one is sure yet.

First, expect fewer teachers in classrooms. For most Texas school districts, personnel costs — employee salaries and benefits — account for 80 percent to 90 percent of total expenses. While the goal for belt-tightening districts will be “to stay as far away from the children” as possible, says Wayne Pierce, the executive director of the Equity Center, which advocates for increased funding to districts, there’s only so much they can do without touching such a large chunk of their budget.

With the specter of the 2011 shortfall looming, many districts have already stripped what they can from administrative and custodial positions, he says. And delaying routine maintenance like fixing leaky roofs until better times can only take them so far. That leaves spending on teachers, which in turn means cutting salaries and, in some cases, eliminating positions. “You have to have electricity, you have to have gasoline for the buses, you have to have teaching supplies,” Pierce says. “So bottom line, you have to cut personnel.”

It’s important to remember that school districts have been operating on tight budgets for years now thanks to the 2006 property tax cut, and that they’ve already been cutting back on things like school bus service. As is the case with Texas’ budget, there’s just not that much fat to cut in many cases.

More cost savings could result from lawmakers lightening the regulatory burden on districts. “The Legislature says we’re giving you less money, but we’re not going to make you do this, so you figure out how to spend it,” explains Sheryl Pace, a senior analyst at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

For instance, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has proposed lifting the cap on class size. A state law passed in 1984 requires no greater than a 22-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. If the Legislature decided to temporarily remove that mandate, it would relieve districts from the burden of creating a new class with an additional teacher and classroom every time the number of students in the class hits 23 — something Patrick has said would save them “millions and millions of dollars.”

Teachers’ groups oppose that approach. They question whether the benefit will outweigh the detriment to students’ educational experience, and if it will actually help reduce costs. Districts can already apply for a waiver if they lack the space or qualified teachers to create a new class. Brock Gregg, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, says his organization is “very focused” on making sure the lawmakers understand how essential small class sizes are to effective public education. “If cuts occur,” Gregg says, “the priority should be on keeping experienced, qualified teachers in front of each student in an appropriate-sized class so students can receive individual attention.”

Let’s be clear about what this would mean.

Nearly 12,000 elementary school teaching jobs would be slashed – for a total annual savings of $558 million – if the state scraps the current 22-pupil class size limit in elementary grades, Comptroller Susan Combs recommended Wednesday.

[…]

“This is the typical penny-wise and pound-foolish arithmetic that this state has engaged in for decades,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “It’s no surprise that if you put more kids in classrooms and fire a bunch of teachers, you’ll save money. And you don’t save $558 million a year without firing thousands of elementary school teachers.”

Brock Gregg of the Association of Texas Professional Educators said the class size limit is one of the main reasons that Texas elementary school students have done better on national standardized tests than most of their peers.

“The question is whether we should eliminate a program that we know works and helps give students the best opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Texas American Federation of Teachers President Linda Bridges noted school districts can now easily obtain waivers from the class size limit – and 145 districts did so last year, citing lack of classroom space or enough teachers.

That’s an awful lot of lost jobs for a fairly modest amount of savings; if the numbers cited in the Trib story are accurate, you’d still be looking for $2.5 to $4.5 billion more to cut. Maybe allowing for an average class size of 22 instead of a maximum won’t have a negative effect on student performance, but it seems unlikely to be a net positive. Other than a demonstration of just how far the Republican Party is willing to go to defend their ginormous unaffordable property tax cut from 2006, what does this accomplish?

Also on the table is more charter schools.

The [Senate Education Committee] recommendation on charter schools would remove the cap of 215 charter school operators – a limit that has been in effect for several years. Republican lawmakers have generally favored the allowance of more charter schools, while Democrats have called for stronger state oversight of existing charter campuses.

Committee members also recommended that the state’s Permanent School Fund be used to guarantee construction bonds for charter schools and that their state funding be increased to match what regular public schools receive.

The four Democrats on the committee voiced objections to some of the charter school recommendations, saying the state cannot commit more funding to charter schools at a time when regular public schools are facing possible cutbacks.

Well, at least this might provide a landing place for some of the 12,000 teachers the Republicans want to fire. I don’t necessarily oppose this particular measure. On the whole, I don’t believe charter schools are any better or worse than public schools – there are good ones and bad ones – and I’m willing to give some help to the good ones in return for some assurance that we’ll do a better job of policing and closing down the bad ones. If that’s on the table, then I’m open to hearing more. I fear that the basic plan will be simply to swap in more charter schools to pick up the slack, and as with the class size limits I don’t see how that’s going to help student performance.

Are you ready for end-of-course exams?

A preliminary run of the state’s new end-of-course exams shows that student performance is not where we would want it to be yet.

Of the nearly 102,000 students who took the Algebra I test in May, for example, just 57 percent met the passing standard on the 50-question exam. Only 12 percent achieved “commended performance” for correctly answering most of the items.

Results were similar on the six other end-of-course tests administered in hundreds of school districts across the state. Some that were required to give the exams so the state could gauge the early performance, while others voluntarily tested their students to get a leg up on the new requirement.

[…]

Teacher groups said the scores are another indication that the state is putting too much emphasis on high-stakes testing.

“We are certainly concerned about the impact on students and those who are now on the bubble as far as graduation,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association.

But one of the lawmakers who led the push to convert to end-of-course tests said the scores aren’t a concern, pointing out the new tests are more rigorous than the single high school graduation test students have been taking for several years.

“The initial results are not a shock,” said state Rep. Rob Eissler, chairman of the House education committee. “We’re trying to raise the level of performance in each of those subjects, and we first have to find out where everybody is.”

Martha wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, so go see what she has to say for some background. The good thing about these tests is that they’re administered like final exams, at the end of the year in which the student took the course. That differs from the current TAKS graduation test, which may cover material from two or three years earlier for a given student. But there’s a lot more of these tests now, and while the increased rigor is a very worthy goal, the combination of more high stakes tests with a higher bar to clear is likely to exacerbate Texas’ already problematic dropout rate. It’s one thing to ask more of students and teachers, it’s another to provide them with the resources they need to achieve what you demand of them. What are the odds that will be an end result of this legislative session? I hope we’re prepared for the fallout of this, but I’m pretty sure we’re not.

How the schools are really doing

I think I’m just going to let the picture tell the story:

If you want the words, go read the Trib story. I get that the TPM is supposed to measure growth, and that growth can and does occur with students who didn’t pass their assessment tests. But if that growth that the TPM says is occurring really is occurring, then that should show up in subsequent test results. Students that the TPM predicts will pass should eventually pass. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much evidence of that in these data.

HISD gives final approval to teacher dismissal plan

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has gotten approval from the HISD Board of Trustees to implement a plan that would allow for the dismissal of teachers whose students don’t make enough progress on standardized tests.

Data provided by HISD show that, over the last three years, 421 teachers have gotten far lower-than-expected progress from their students on standardized tests. That represents about 12 percent of the teachers the policy could affect and 3 percent of all teachers in the district.

“Don’t forget that we have approximately 13,000 teachers in HISD,” Grier said. “The vast majority are doing a good job.”

Some of the teachers may have poor scores in one subject but rate highly in another. In those cases, Grier has suggested that principals could switch teaching assignments instead of turning to termination.

[…]

The district only tracks the individual performance of teachers in grades three through 8 in the subjects of math, science, social studies and language arts. These 3,500 or so teachers would be the ones affected by HISD’s plan to include so-called value-added scores in formal job evaluations and as a potential reason for dismissal.

Standardized test data is not available for teachers of lower grades or elective classes. High school teachers get rated on the performance of their entire department, such as math or science.

More here and here. The unions object to this for a variety of reasons, including a lack of clarity about how the policy is to be applied; principals, who would be responsible for recommending that a teacher be fired, are also concerned about that. I certainly agree that at the very least, the process needs to be very specific about what conditions can lead to termination, and what remediating steps can be taken and must be taken to head it off. I confess, while I agree with this idea in principle, I have problems with basing it all on standardized test scores. There is, or at least there should be, more to education and evaluating teachers than that, not to mention the fact that it seems unfair to subject only a fraction of the teacher population to this condition. Of course, moving evaluations away from standardized test scores necessarily makes them more subjective, and thus harder to quantify and codify as processes. I don’t know what if any method would be best, but I do hope we intend to evaluate the process itself on a yearly basis, to see if it actually works as intended, and I hope we have the courage to admit it and do something about it if it does not. School Zone has more, and be sure to see this FAQ posted by HISD about the “Value Added” scores.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

HISD moves ahead with its teacher dismissal plan

Here we go.

The school board on Thursday gave initial approval to a policy that allows the district to dismiss teachers whose students consistently perform below expectations on standardized tests. The change represents a move to make personnel decisions based more on student learning instead of relying solely on principals’ classroom observations of teachers.

[HISD Superintendent Terry] Grier and school board members have emphasized that the district’s goal is not to fire teachers but to help them improve. Teachers’ job evaluations now will include their so-called value-added scores, a statistical measure of their effectiveness in helping students reach their potential on standardized exams.

Well, we’ll see how it goes. The teachers don’t much like this, and I can’t say I blame them. We rely an awful lot on standardized tests, and while I think they provide a good metric, they’re just one dimension. They shouldn’t be over-emphasized. I think as long as they’re just another factor in the evaluation, it’ll be all right. The more it’s used, the less comfortable I’ll be.

Do bear in mind that not all teachers teach subjects that are covered by standardized tests. That was a complaint about the merit pay program, too, since it meant some teachers were automatically excluded. Also, as noted in Hair Balls, using improvement on standardized tests as a metric isn’t so effective for Gifted and Talented teachers, whose students generally start out at a very high level on these tests and thus literally can’t improve much, and it complicates the decision of when to transition bilingual kids into English-only classes. The devil is very much in the details here.

One thing I’m curious about:

[Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle] Fallon places blame on principals who don’t identify weak teachers early in their careers. For their first three or four years on the job, public school teachers in Texas are on probationary contracts, making it easier for districts to dismiss them.

In Texas, getting rid of a teacher with more experience, however, can take up to seven months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.

“It’s a long process,” said attorney David Thompson, who represents HISD and other Texas districts. “You can see why educators who don’t deal with this every day find it daunting and why it can be discouraging.”

Why not place a greater burden on the principals to do a better job of weeding out the weaker teachers before they get tenure? You have to be careful to not do this in a way that would provide an incentive for principals to fire any time they’re in doubt, but if this is the best time to take action, then let’s make sure action gets taken when appropriate. Come up with a metric that shows how many teachers that were subsequently identified as underperforming a given principal allowed to get tenure, and make that a part of a principal’s evaluation. That’s not perfect – among other things, some people who start out as good performers do later become poor ones, for a variety of reasons – but I think it’s in the right direction. What do you think? School Zone has more.

Evaluating teachers

This is sure to be contentious, but I think it’s the right direction.

Teachers in Houston ISD could lose their jobs for failing to improve student test scores under a controversial proposal slated for a school board vote Thursday.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to tie teachers’ job evaluations to their students’ progress on standardized tests would put Houston among a small but growing number of school districts pushing to make it easier to oust ineffective teachers.

[…]

Under the HISD proposal, teachers’ value-added marks would be included in their job appraisals starting next school year. The policy does not say how much weight would be given to the value-added data in the overall evaluation.

Teachers could lose their jobs based on the data. The proposal would allow HISD not to renew a teacher’s contract because of “insufficient academic growth as reflected by value-added scores.”

[…]

[Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon] said her concern with the proposed changes center on its use of the value-added method, which she considers flawed, too complex and not transparent.

“If you’re going to fire me, it ought to be for something that I know how you calculate it,” she said. “You can’t show me this number predicts whether I’m a good teacher.”

I think the principle that poor teachers need to be, in the words of Trustee Paula Harris, professionally developed or out of the system, is reasonably uncontroversial. That said, it’s fair to be suspicious of the methodology used to determine which teachers fall into that category. As the Trib reminds us, the much-ballyhooed merit pay program was a bust. I don’t know what the best way to do this is – for all I know, this is as good as anything – but it’s imperative to get it right. I applaud Superintendent Grier for swinging for the fences, and I hope Fallon and her cohorts keep pushing him and the board to make this as fair and transparent as possible. I’ve posted a statement from the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, as well as an email from former Trustee Natasha Kamrani, beneath the fold.

(more…)

Big education bills pass

Well, the SBOE may be doing its best to destroy public education in Texas, but the Lege took a step forward to make it better by passing omnibus school reform bills in each chamber.

Crafted by the education leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, the bills aim to reduce the role of standardized tests, give schools more flexibility to help struggling students and focus education on readying students for college or the workplace.

Gone are many of the school reforms ushered in by then-Gov. George W. Bush, such as a prohibition on promoting a student to the next grade if he or she failed to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

That promotion decision will now be left to the school and parents.

[House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands] said the overhaul will end the one-size-fits-all approach of the current system and allow for schools to be judged on more than just performance on a single test.

The bills are HB3 and SB3, which are very similar but not identical and thus will go through a reconciliation. Both passed unanimously, so it ought to be relatively smooth sailing. EoW has more.

Is the TAKS test at the end of the line?

If so, there’s a lot of people who won’t be sorry to see it go.

“We have counted on testing and testing only. And it’s caused a lot of angst in the schools,” Senate Public Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Wednesday about the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

“We’ll still test, but we’re using other variables to give us the results that we need.”

Shapiro and House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, plan to file the school accountability legislation on Thursday. The changes — which would start in the 2011-12 school year — aim to gradually elevate Texas into the top 10 states when it comes to preparing students for college or equipping them with workforce skills.

Texas ranked 46th in the country last year in the Scholastic Assessment Test scores and last among all states in the percentage of adult population with a high school diploma.

The bills in question are HB3 (Eissler) and SB3 (Shapiro). That’s quite a lofty goal they’ve set for this legislation, but a worthwhile one.

The legislative proposal contemplates a “Texas diploma” for college-bound students and a “standard diploma” for those seeking skilled workforce training and a related career. The standard diploma would require three years of English and one year of algebra.

“This diploma will be in a field that says you are certified and are skilled workforce ready,” Shapiro said.

Students would be measured by individual improvement instead of a single test score. Existing “exemplary” “recognized” and “acceptable” ratings for schools and school districts will be eliminated and replaced by an “accreditation tier” focused on individual student achievement based on readiness for college or career.

High school, middle school and elementary school campuses also can earn distinctions for excellence in a variety of areas, such as growth in student achievement, workforce readiness, second language learning, fine arts and physical fitness.

Student testing “will cover more than minimum skills,” Eissler said. Tests will be given in each grade level in an effort to get “an instant growth indicator,” Eissler said, measuring a student’s academic improvement from one year to the next.

We’ll have to see what the details are, but I like the general concept. The purpose of school is to prepare you for what comes next, and I think it makes more sense to evaluate them on that kind of metric than on a standardized test one, which is easy to game and doesn’t really measure anything useful. This is going to be a lot trickier to do, and I’ve no doubt there will be problems and disagreements with the implementation. But the direction strikes me as the right one, and so I hope this makes it through. EoW has more.

TSTA poll on public education

The Texas State Teachers Association released the results of its annual poll on attitudes towards public education in Texas last week. From the poll memo (PDF):

Despite a declining national and state economy, a majority of Texas voters still maintain
that too little is being spent on education.
A 60% majority of voters believe the state
government is spending too little on education versus 10% who say too much and 24%
who say the right amount. This perception of under-investment is held by majorities of
Republicans, Independents and Democrats, and it is essentially unchanged from the
view held throughout our polling from 2003 through 2007.

Sixty-three percent (63%) of Texans think state funding for public schools should be
increased.
By contrast, just 6% believe state funding for schools should be decreased
and 27% say it should be kept at the same level. This majority support for increasing
state spending on schools is held by 54% of Republicans, 62% of Independents, and
76% of Democrats.

Despite the economic anxiety of voters, those who support increasing the funding of
schools remains over 60%.

Furthermore, 71% of voters – with no partisan bias (Republicans 69%, Independents
71% and Democrats 76%) – believe the state legislature has more work to do to properly
fund public schools
, versus 20% who say it has sufficiently addressed the issue.
Although those saying the Legislature must do more has declined from 81% two years
ago to 71% now, the current 7-to-2 sentiment remains overwhelmingly lopsided.

Emphasis in the original. Other subjects polled include standardized testing and teacher pay. You can see all the data, with graphs, in this large PDF file; there’s also a video presentation. The remarkable thing is how stable the numbers have been since 2003, in all areas. Maybe this is how people have always felt, going back to the creation of the public school system, I don’t know. The disconnect between what people say they want and what they’ve been getting is still pretty striking.