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Mike Morath

Lots of Harvey waivers out there

And good for the school districts that got them.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

HISD is optimistic about not being taken over (yet)

I hope it’s warranted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As the Board turns”

deep sigh

Houston ISD Trustee Jolanda Jones publicly aired personal attacks and allegations against fellow school board members in online posts this week, chipping away at the board’s efforts to present a more collegial front in the face of administrative upheaval and potentially major state sanctions this year.

In three Facebook posts, Jones alleged a newly elected trustee called a longtime board member a “thief” and a “crook” with “no moral character,” and she accused a fellow trustee of misleading her during the process of electing a school board president. Jones also claimed five trustees who rejected HISD’s proposed budget last week will be responsible for employees losing their homes — even though board members are expected to pass the budget next week, with no adverse impact on staff members.

You can click over and read the rest; I don’t care to litigate any of it. I’m just going to say this: For the first time ever, as of last November, the Board is comprised entirely of Democrats, with (I believe) a majority of members elected with the support of the local AFT. Even if the Board were firing on all cylinders, the current partisan makeup would present as a tempting target for the state for takeover, given the issues with the low-performing schools. But at least a high-functioning Board, whose membership is two-thirds new since 2015, would have a compelling argument to make that they deserve a little more time to make progress on the problem. With the way things are now, who’s going to stand in their defense when Mike Morath picks a new Board to replace them?

The criteria for Harvey accountability waivers

Here they are.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Wednesday released the criteria he will use to decide how to waive state ratings for schools affected by Hurricane Harvey, more than nine months after it made landfall.

Schools impacted by Harvey that are set to receive failing state ratings this year, based largely on standardized tests, will instead get a waiver or a “not rated” label — if they meet Morath’s criteria. But school administrators have repeatedly asked Morath to waive state ratings for all schools in the disaster area, instead of just the percentage that meet his criteria, arguing the mental health and academic impacts of the storm apply to all students and teachers in the region.

According to the released rules, schools must meet at least one of the following criteria to be considered for a waiver:

  • The school reported 10 percent or more of its enrolled students were displaced or homeless due to Hurricane Harvey.
  • The school reported 10 percent or more of its teachers were homeless due to the hurricane.
  • The school was closed for 10 or more class days post-Harvey.
  • The school had to hold classes in a different location or share a campus, at least through winter break, due to hurricane-related damages.

If all schools in a district qualify for a waiver, the entire district will also get a waiver from state ratings this year unless they receive the top rating. Districts will also receive waivers if 10 percent or more of their student body is enrolled in a school that received a waiver.

So what does that mean for HISD?

About 1,200 Texas schools affected by Hurricane Harvey, including hundreds throughout the Houston area, won’t be punished for low academic performance this year as a result of the storm’s devastation, Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday.

The list of campuses, however, does not include four of the 10 Houston ISD schools that could trigger major state sanctions this year. If all four of those campuses — Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School — do not meet state academic standards in August, the Texas Education Agency must replace HISD’s locally elected school board or close failing campuses. Woodson and Worthing are considered among the least likely of the 10 to meet state standards.

[…]

In an interview, Morath said the 10-day cutoff mirrored the threshold set for accountability waivers after Hurricane Ike in 2008. This time, however, Morath added the three additional criteria based on feedback from education leaders and availability of data.

“I think that given the totality of the impact of the storm, we had to set a threshold that was fairly low in terms of the degree of impact,” Morath said.

Seven of the region’s 20 largest school districts were closed for at least 10 instructional days, ensuring district-wide waivers. However, most districts were closed for seven to nine instructional days.

A few districts staggered their return dates. As a result, some campuses in a district will meet the 10-day threshold, while others will not.

In Houston ISD, for example, about 240 campuses missed nine instructional days, while 40 others missed 10 or more. Morath said he expects nearly 150 of those 240 campuses will still receive waivers because they meet other criteria.

Morath said some campuses in hard-hit districts “were just not affected by the storm” and “did not warrant getting any special storm-related adjusted accountability.”

Regarding the long-struggling HISD schools subject to sanctions, Morath said: “The attention that’s given to these 10 campuses in HISD has little to do with activities specific to this year. Each of those campuses has failed to meet academic standards for four years in a row, and at least one of them eight years in a row. We’re talking about, in some cases, a generation of students.”

HISD leaders, who have lobbied for district-wide accountability waivers, were magnanimous in comments Wednesday about Morath’s decision, even as most of the district’s schools fell just a single instructional day short of receiving an automatic break.

Using a ten-missed-days criterion instead of nine seems a bit arbitrary to me – as I recall, one of the weeks in which schools were closed included Labor Day, so there would have been a tenth day of cancellations were it not for that. What happens next, I don’t know. Rep. Garnet Coleman released a statement expressing surprise at the announcement and a promise to “vigorously analyze” it. He also encouraged the four schools to apply for waivers individually. So who knows, there’s still some doubt about where we go from here. And if the TEA does take action, I agree with Mayor Turner, who said they will own the results. Whatever they choose, I hope they know what they’re doing.

HISD hoping for Harvey waiver

That’s what it would take to avoid TEA sanctions this year.

Houston ISD’s 10 longest-struggling schools likely would not trigger major state sanctions this year if they all receive academic accountability waivers due to Hurricane Harvey, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday.

However, the district still would face punishment — either campus closures or a state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board — if Morath opts against accountability waivers for the schools and a single one fails to meet state academic standards.

The commissioner’s comments, made during a wide-ranging interview with the Houston Chronicle editorial board, answered several questions about the potential penalties facing Texas’ largest district, which must boost performance at its campuses to avoid unprecedented state intervention.

[…]

A decision on Harvey waivers is expected in June. All 10 of the schools were closed for 10 or 11 days following Harvey, with none sustaining catastrophic damage.

Morath repeatedly cautioned that no final decisions have been made about Harvey-related waivers or potential sanctions. However, if any of the 10 schools trigger the state law this year, Morath said he does not believe he has the legal authority to give HISD a break, as some Houston-area leaders have requested.

“Short version: I’m a constitutionally sworn officer, so, no,” Morath said. “I do what the law tells me.”

Morath said Texas Education Agency officials continue to collect and analyze data that will help decide which schools will receive Harvey-related accountability waivers. He expects the agency will analyze several campus-level factors — including days of instruction missed, students displaced and teachers left homeless — as they set criteria for issuing waivers. Some of those data points have been collected on a weekly basis, Morath said.

“Our team is trying to figure out whether or not the rules should be entirely consistent with (Hurricane) Ike or slightly more generous,” Morath said. “I think I’m currently leaning toward a slightly more generous framework than the prior systems, where it’s not just dates closed, but also student and staff displacement as a factor.”

Following Hurricane Ike in 2008, any school or district closed for at least 10 instructional days due to the storm received a “not rated” grade, unless its rating improved from the previous year.

See here for the last update. I’ve long maintained that all districts affected by Harvey deserve a one-year exemption from state accountability standards, and I remain hopeful that this will happen. Commissioner Morath is taking the question seriously, which I appreciate. We’ll know when he’s ready to tell us. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman, who is among the leaders that have been advocating for this, is here.

What might the TEA do with HISD?

They have some options, the best of which is probably to put the decision off for a year.

A.J. Crabill knows what it’s like to close schools.

In 2010, Crabill, then a 30-year-old member of the Kansas City, Missouri, school board, cast a deciding vote to shutter nearly half of the district’s schools, devastating some members of the community.

Eight years later, Crabill is the deputy commissioner of governance for the Texas Education Agency, and he and his boss, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, likely will face a similar quandary with Houston ISD. A new state law is expected to force the agency to shut down several chronically underperforming schools or replace the district’s locally elected school board — with either choice inciting anger across Houston.

“The question becomes: Which actions can be least disruptive to students? And which actions can create the most benefits for students?” Crabill told a Houston gathering last month. “To be clear, there are only hard choices that are left on the table.”

[…]

Some advocates who oppose charter schools and conservative-aligned education policies also have expressed dismay that Morath, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, would have authority to make major decisions impacting HISD.

In addition, several HISD trustees have argued that the district is making progress at its lowest-performing schools, citing its Achieve 180 plans that pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into each campus.

To date, TEA leaders have been relatively tight-lipped about what they will choose for HISD if the district becomes subject to sanctions this year. However, a review of recent TEA actions, comments by Crabill and statements by local leaders shed light on how the coming months could play out.

Crabill, Morath’s top liaison in dealing with HISD the past few months, hinted at last month’s community meeting that school closures are not the best option for solving academic issues. Crabill said he had visited some of the 10 low-performing schools — all of which serve predominately black and Hispanic students in high-poverty neighborhoods — and found their struggles were not due to staff efforts.

“We have to look beyond state-mandated closure as a panacea in this particular instance,” Crabill said. “I don’t say that out of an unwillingness to use that as an option. I say that from someone who’s gone to the campuses and doesn’t see that it actually moves the ball forward for those students.”

[…]

Across the country, states have sought to get more involved in large, urban districts facing serious academic and financial issues. Gary Ritter, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas who has analyzed state takeover efforts, said intervention sometimes helps steady troubled districts, but there’s “not much evidence that, systematically, this can lead to clear academic benefits.” He also noted Houston is unique from other districts nationwide because only 10 of its 284 schools have been labeled chronically underperforming.

“That certainly seems like an unhelpful wrinkle in the takeover” threat in Houston, Ritter said. “For the most part, in places like Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, Cleveland (and) Philadelphia, they were done when the school district had been showing either poor performance or financial troubles for several years in a row.”

For that reason, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, wants to see Morath show leniency to HISD. Coleman, whose district includes two of the 10 schools, said HB1842 carries a penalty that is “not appropriate to the circumstance.”

Coleman said he plans to introduce a bill during the 2019 legislative session that would change or repeal the sanctions listed under HB1842, which passed with 85 percent support in the Legislature. He said he believes many lawmakers were not aware of the implications of the bill when it passed.

I think between Harvey, the fact that the schools in question are a tiny part of HISD, the lack of clarity over the intent of the law, and the TEA-approved improvement plan for the ten schools, the case for deferring the decision for a year is compelling. I’d also note that a majority of the HISD Board is new since December of 2016 – Santos, Lira, Deigaard, Sung, Vilaseca – so you can plausibly argue that they should be given a chance to get things fixed before the state comes in and installs a new group of trustees. I’ve also noted before that we now have an all-Democratic board, which may work against them politically when the chips are down. Last week’s chaos, between the seemingly unvetted charter plan and the melee at the Wednesday meeting followed by the vote to do nothing, didn’t do them any favors, either. I hope the schools show enough improvement to satisfy the TEA that things are at least on track, and I hope the TEA is in no rush to do anything drastic.

HISD nixes charter partnership

First there was this.

Houston ISD board members adjourned late Tuesday without voting on a controversial measure to give up control over 10 low-performing schools after the meeting turned physical and police escorted members of the public — nearly all of whom opposed the plan — out of the room.

Chanting “no more sellouts” and shouting at trustees, most of the roughly 100 community members in attendance watched angrily as officers began physically pulling disruptive residents out of the room. The skirmish came after HISD Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones declared a recess in the middle of the meeting and ordered the room cleared due to repeated public outbursts.

If trustees choose to meet again, they likely will not return until Saturday at the earliest. Trustees typically provide at least 72 hours advance notice of any public board meeting. The vote had been expected to be narrow, with several trustees already voicing support or opposition for the proposal.

The uproar reflects the heated nature of HISD’s proposal to allow Energized For STEM Academy Inc., which already runs four in-district charter schools, to take over operations of the 10 campuses for five years. Without the agreement, HISD would likely face forced campus closures or a state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board due to its failure to improve academics at the schools.

HISD Interim Police Chief Paul Cordova said one person was arrested on a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge, one person was arrested on a charge of interfering with duties of a public servant and one person was detained but not arrested.

[…]

In the district’s first public statement since Energized For STEM Academy was named Friday as the potential partner, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the organization “will help our students to reach the level of achievement that we know is possible.”

“Data shows Energized for STEM Academy has successfully led students to high levels of academic achievement as well as prepared them for college and careers since first partnering with HISD 10 years ago,” Lathan said in a statement. She has not granted any interview requests in recent days.

The choice, however, faced immediate resistance. Multiple trustees said they lacked enough information to properly evaluate Energized For STEM Academy’s academic and governance history.

Several education advocates and leaders, including the Houston Federation of Teachers, also raised several questions about Energized For STEM Academy’s ethics. They’ve particularly focused on Energized For STEM Academy’s head of schools, Lois Bullock, who serves as both employee and landlord at another in-district HISD charter organization. It’s not immediately clear whether Bullock has improperly profited off the highly unusual arrangement.

All speakers at Tuesday’s school board meeting opposed the district’s plan. Many advocated for suing the state over the 2015 law that imposed sanctions. Several questioned whether Energized For STEM Academy is dedicated to special education students, noting that the organization has a disproportionately low special education population at its current schools. A few students implored trustees to maintain current operations at their schools.

See here for the background. I was going to tell you to go read Stace and Campos before getting into my own thoughts, but then this happened.

Houston ISD leaders will not turn over control of its 10 longest-struggling schools to any outside organizations, the district’s administration announced Wednesday, a decision that puts HISD at risk of forced campus closures or a state takeover of its locally elected school board.

[…]

In a statement Wednesday, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district is “not bringing another partnership proposal to the board, nor will there be another meeting to consider partnerships for the 10 schools.” She said the district will continue to carry out its current plans for improving academic performance at the campuses.

Under a law passed in 2015, known as HB 1842, the Texas Education Agency must close schools or replace HISD’s school board if any of the district’s schools receive a fifth straight “improvement required” rating for poor academic performance this year. The 10 schools all risk triggering the law, and it’s unlikely all 10 will meet state academic standards this year.

With partnerships off the table, attention now will turn to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, who has yet to announce whether any schools or districts will receive accountability rating waivers due to Hurricane Harvey. Agency officials have not said whether HISD still would be subject to sanctions if the 10 schools receive waivers that assure they are not rated “improvement required” this year.

“Any and all decisions by Commissioner Morath regarding accountability exemptions or waivers for campuses affected by Hurricane Harvey will be announced in June,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said in a statement.

[…]

In interviews prior to Tuesday’s scheduled vote, trustees Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sue Deigaard and Anne Sung said they were uncomfortable with the amount of information and time they had to vet Energized For STEM Academy. Two other board members, [Sergio] Lira and Jolanda Jones, said Wednesday that they would vote against charter partnership agreements. Trustee Elizabeth Santos had earlier said she opposed giving control of schools to charter organizations.

Many of the most vocal community members involved in the partnership debate have advocated litigation over HB 1842. To date, only one HISD trustee, Jones, has voiced support for a lawsuit. Board members have received legal advice surrounding potential litigation, though they’ve been reluctant to divulge details of those conversations because they took place in closed session.

“Suing TEA is more of a longshot at being successful,” Lira said. “From a historical precedent, there have been very few successful cases when the district files against TEA.”

The announcement that HISD would not pursue partnerships came about two hours after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he supports “HISD simply standing down.” Turner, who hinted at getting involved in partnership plans but ultimately opted against it, said he plans to contact Morath to ask for a one-year waiver.

I’m going to say the same thing I would have said if the Energized for STEM proposal had passed: I sure hope this works. It’s certainly possible that Energized for STEM could have been a successful partner, but it’s equally certain that there was precious little time to consider the idea, and not much community input. The community spoke loudly that they didn’t want that arrangement, and now they have gotten what they wanted. They had ample reason to not like that option, and to not give the HISD leadership the benefit of the doubt. Now we all need to send that same message to the Legislature, because that’s where this mess got started. The Press has more.

No Houston-HISD partnership

Probably just as well.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has ruled out any partnership with Houston ISD to turn around 10 chronically under-performing schools, saying Wednesday he will not be part of the school district’s forthcoming proposal aimed at avoiding a state takeover.

HISD administrators have recommended temporarily giving up power over governance, hiring and other operations at the 10 campuses to an outside organization in an attempt to stave off school closures or replacement of the district’s school board. The district’s proposal is due to the Texas Education Agency by April 30. Administrators have not named any potential partners that would take control, and trustees are not expected to vote on proposals until next week.

Turner said last month that he had been asked to get “very, very, very involved” in the district’s efforts, and he did not rule out the possibility of some kind of partnership with HISD. On Wednesday, he said after the City Council meeting that neither he nor the city would be partnering with HISD.

“I will not be in that proposal,” the mayor said of the plan due this month. “Depending on whether or not schools remain in IR status after this academic year will in large part determine what will be the extent of my role.”

[…]

HISD administrators have released little information about their recommendations for the 10 schools as the April 30 deadline nears. Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan verbally has recommended forming three-year partnerships, though terms of any potential contracts have not been released. HISD did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday on its partnership plans.

Turner said he has been speaking weekly with Education Commissioner Mike Morath, whose agency is expected to approve or reject partnership contracts by early June.

See here for the background. We don’t really know much about HISD’s intentions here, which is a bit alarming considering the deadline they’re facing. Surely there was room for more public engagement on this. Be that as it may, I do hope they get this right.

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

Good.

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

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

Students across the state began taking STAAR exams this week.

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

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

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

One small piece of relief for Harvey-affected school districts

It’s not much, but it’s something.

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

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

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

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

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

School districts affected by Harvey ask for a break on testing

One way or another we’re going to have to reckon with this.

Leaders of school districts heavily affected by Hurricane Harvey told a legislative panel on Monday that they would like to see Texas’ accountability and testing requirements relaxed in the wake of the disaster. They also said the storms have dealt a financial blow and that they weren’t optimistic about being reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or insurance anytime soon.

[…]

Although the state’s accountability system and standardized testing was not on the agenda, it was repeatedly brought up by superintendents and education leaders who testified.

Before the superintendents testified, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said his agency had polled Harvey-affected school districts and found that by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, school districts preferred to keep the current testing windows the same rather than move them later.

That stunned Port Aransas ISD Superintendent Mark Kemp, who helped reopen the district to students in mid-October.

“I’m on all the conference calls and meetings with our local superintendents, and we keep saying the same thing – just give us a one-year reprieve,” Kemp said. “The stress of testing is huge, and on top of that, we have students who have to find their next meal, who have nowhere to lay their head at night.”

Other superintendents who testified Monday said they’d rather have the state hold them harmless for their students’ results than change the testing window. None spoke in favor of leaving the state’s testing and accountability system in place, as is, for storm-affected districts this year.

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt said his district’s accountability data has been out of whack since the late-August storm. At Mayde Creek High School, for example, Hindt said they’ve seen a 14 percentage-point drop in the number of students who submitted free or reduced-price lunch applications. He said that’s because the district offered free meals through September, so many students who qualify didn’t end up submitting applications on time.

He proposed the state give every campus and district within the federal government’s disaster area an accountability ranking of “not rated – data integrity issues.” Hindt said that’s a designation that already exists and can be used under current law, and that it reflects the situation in Katy ISD and other Harvey-affected districts.

“Why hold districts accountable based on flawed data?” Hindt asked. “The state does not care that parents lost jobs or are living on the second story of their home. If you don’t think that will have impact on accountability, let me come back a year from now and show you how it did.”

I’ve been generally sympathetic to this position all along, and I like the proposed solution from Superintendent Hindt. One way or another, the TEA is going to have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be a hugely abnormal year for many students. Why not plan to take that into account now?

School districts don’t need gift registries

They need to have their needs met by the state.

Texas school districts ravaged by Hurricane Harvey still need thousands of textbooks, dictionaries and other instructional resources, so the state’s education agency is borrowing a page from the wedding industry to help cover the costs.

The Texas Education Agency has modified its textbook ordering system to create a “wedding registry” of sorts where districts can list the textbooks they need to replace those damaged in the storm.

Textbook publishers, individuals or organizations can then donate the books, as can school districts that have excess inventory.

“It was very clear that a lot of people lost a great amount of instructional materials, including textbooks,” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said. “If you consider the scale of Harvey, (the registry) is not solving everyone’s problems, but it is helping in places.”

The registry is meant to match districts in need with those willing to donate, and officials say those donations will free up money to cover other costs, such as rebuilding schools.

But some question the approach, expressing concerns over delays in instruction as schools wait for the textbooks to arrive, and the impact that will have on student learning.

“If we had books that have been destroyed, then the state needs to step up and take care of that problem,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

So far, 14 districts have created needs-lists in the state’s registry, including Humble, Sheldon and Pasadena school districts.

You can see the registry page here. I mean, I have no problem with providing a way for districts that have surplus supplies to give them to those that need them, but that should not be the first avenue of recourse. Students need textbooks and other such materials today – remember, their standardized test scores are still going to count. As Rep. Huberty says, the districts should just buy what they need and send the bill to the state. Admittedly, I can understand why they might be skittish about that, but if there’s one time where public opinion should be overwhelmingly on their side, this would be it. Let’s not waste any time here.

Has Harvey changed anything politically?

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

More on recapture and the Rainy Day Fund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t expect any STAAR slack

Sorry, kids.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

One last look at the recapture re-vote

There’s a lot at stake here, and not a whole lot of people voting on it.

For the second time in seven months, voters within the Houston Independent School District will determine how – and if – it should pay tens of millions to help subsidize districts that collect little in property taxes.

The vote Saturday comes as some HISD trustees have reassessed a decision by voters in November not to write a $77.5 million check to the state to comply with Texas’ “recapture” policy.

While district leaders don’t think it’s fair that an urban district with many poor students and English-language learners should be slapped with such a financial penalty, they’re split over the best way to respond.

Some trustees argue that Proposition 1 will deal a blow to progress in getting state legislators to rethink Texas’ widely criticized school finance system. They believe refusing to pay will allow the district to sue the state to free HISD of its recapture obligations.

Others believe that voters should hold their nose and vote for the measure, especially with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath threatening that a “no” vote would prompt him to move some of Houston’s most valuable commercial properties out of the district’s taxable area.

That “detachment” scenario has never happened in Texas and could cost HISD $98.4 million in lost tax revenue this year, district officials estimate.

“Either scenario is bad,” acknowledged Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budget and financial planning, adding that the district could end up losing more than 15 percent of its annual budget in a few years under either option. “You get used to living at a certain level, but now you can’t deal with cost increases. You have to start selling off furniture and only eat out once a week. It causes you to change how you do business.”

[…]

While Houston will owe $77.5 million in recapture fees this year, that number will soon balloon to $376 million owed just for the 2019-2020 school year, according to Houston ISD budget estimates. That same school year, Houston could lose as much as $413.2 million under the “detachment” scenario if property values rise (it would lose less than that amount if property values remain stagnant or decline).

Trustees including board President Wanda Adams, Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Mike Lunceford said they now fear vindictive action from the Texas Education Agency and lawmakers if the district doesn’t pay the recapture fees. But other trustees, including Jolanda Jones and Manuel Rodriguez Jr., want the district to hold steadfast in its decision not to pay the recapture fees. Jones said the district could take the state to court and argue that detachment is unconstitutional.

She contends that Houston ISD – the state’s largest school district – has the power to pressure the state to change its funding formulas.

“We can’t debate detachment until there’s an actual detachment,” Jones said. “No district has voted to detach, so that hasn’t been heard at all (in the courts).”

It should be noted that TEA Commissioner Morath isn’t “threatening” to detach properties. The TEA has already identified the properties it will detach. It’s just that the process doesn’t formally take place for another month or two, which is why HISD had the opportunity for the re-vote, which could prevent detachment from going through. Either we buy the attendance credits – i.e., vote Yes on the recapture proposition – or we experience detachment. Those are the choices.

Well, except that Trustee Jolanda Jones argues that detachment is unconstitutional. Which I suppose it could be – I Am Not A Lawyer, remember – but as Jones notes since no district has ever undergone detachment, the issues has not been litigated. I take that to mean that if the No vote wins again, someone will sue the TEA to stop detachment from happening. That does not strike me as the soundest of strategies, but I can’t say that it wouldn’t work. I can say that I personally would not choose to risk it, which is why I voted Yes.

Anyway. To get back to the matter of how many people are voting in this election, the final EV turnout document indicates about 8,500 in person early votes cast in HISD (basically, take the overall total and subtract the bottom five lines, to remove Pasadena, Humble, and Lone Star College from the amount), plus maybe 3,000 mail ballots. That suggests a final overall turnout in the 18-20K range. There’s no way to do a direct comparison to other HISD elections because the Trustees are on staggered four year terms, meaning that in a given election only some of the Trustees are on the ballot. HISD elections are also concurrent with city of Houston elections (though that will be different this year barring an order throwing out the term limits referendum), so turnout numbers in HISD districts are at least somewhat affected by that as well. To give a small amount of context, in 2013 there were 41,392 total ballots cast in three contested Trustee races (the County Clerk doesn’t provide the returns on uncontested Trustee races; state law allows for uncontested races to be skipped, which may be what happens in these cases), while in 2015 there were 76,184 voters in four contested races. Turnout rates ranged from 17 to 22 percent in the three districts in 2013, and from 21 to 28 percent in the four districts in 2015. Make of all that what you will.

Lawsuit threatened over special education limits

The clock is ticking.

Disability advocates on Monday threatened to sue the Texas Education Agency unless the state permanently ends its special education enrollment benchmark within the next month.

The advocates said immediate action is necessary because of the “devastating harm” caused by the benchmark.

The state already has suspended and pledged to eventually eliminate the decade-old cap, which punished school districts for giving special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students. But the state has angered advocates by not saying when it will permanently end the policy.

“The time for action to protect and support Texas’s children with disabilities is now,” the advocates from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and Disability Rights Texas wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner Mike Morath.

Asked to comment on the letter, agency spokesman Gene Acuña said that officials already are working to eliminate the 8.5 percent metric. Changes to the policy should be proposed in the spring, he said.

“As always, we continue to seek input from stakeholders during this process,” Acuña said.

[…]

The letter also outlined the group’s legal theory.

First, the advocates said, the benchmark was inappropriate because states are allowed to monitor school districts “only as necessary to ensure compliance with federal law.” Moreover, they argued, the benchmark actively violated the law “because it directs, incentivizes, and has caused school districts to deny enrollment in special education programs to eligible students.”

The advocates said they would not file the lawsuit if Morath and the agency counter-sign their letter and initiate the process of permanently ending the benchmark within 30 days.

See here for the background; a copy of the letter is in the story. The TEA officially backed off enforcing its policy of capping special ed funding in November, but the policy still remains on the books. From the TEA quote above, it sounds like the deadline given will be too short, so it’s a matter of how much progress they make and whether the plaintiffs-to-be will be satisfied with that. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

New school grading system looks pretty harsh

Brace yourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

And of course, from here in Houston.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feds intervene in Texas special education mess

Good.

The federal government on Monday ordered Texas state officials to eliminate an 8.5 percent benchmark on special education enrollment enforced in the state’s 1,200 school districts unless they can show that it had not kept children with disabilities from receiving appropriate educational services.

The U.S. Department of Education directed the state to report back in 30 days on the benchmark’s impact and on which school districts across the state may have relied on it to deny special education services to children. Its findings on those districts should include “the specific steps the State will take to remedy the effect of such past practices,” the department said.

“It appears that the State’s approach to monitoring local educational agency compliance … may be resulting in districts’ failure to identify and evaluate all students suspected of having a disability and who need special education,” Sue Swenson, the department’s acting assistant secretary for special education, wrote in a three-page letter to Mike Morath, head of the Texas Education Agency.

“Depending on TEA’s response,” Swenson wrote, the federal government “will determine whether additional monitoring activities or other administrative enforcement or corrective actions are necessary.”

The TEA, which has denied that children with disabilities have been kept out of special education but has promised to review the issue, said in a statement that it “welcomes the opportunity” to discuss its policies.

[…]

Since 1975, federal law has mandated that public schools provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability.

TEA officials have said state-by-state comparisons are inappropriate and have attributed the dramatic declines to new teaching techniques that they say have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

In response to criticism from lawmakers, school board members, superintendents, advocates and parents, the TEA also has said the policy was adopted in response to a federal effort to reduce over-representation in special education.

Swenson’s letter disclosed that Texas and the U.S. Department of Education have previously discussed the target, in 2014. In that exchange, according to the letter, TEA special education director Eugene Lenz said the districts that exceeded 8.5 percent were not penalized but merely monitored to ensure compliance with the law. He also assured the federal government that the state ensures that all children with disabilities get services.

“However, the information presented in the Chronicle’s investigative article raises serious questions about Texas’s compliance” with federal law and about “the implementation of the approaches Texas described to (the U.S. Department of Education) in 2014,” Swenson wrote. “According to information in the article, some districts view the 8.5 percent (benchmark) as a cap on the number of children with disabilities that may be identified in a district, and in some instances if a district exceeds the cap, the district will be required to develop a corrective action plan demonstrating how it will reduce its special education identification rate.”

See here, here, and here for the background. One wonders if the appearance of the feds will finally stir Greg Abbott to action. Will he bravely defend the TEA’s secret administrative rules from federal interference, or will he maintain radio silence? I’m sure he’s making the political calculations about what he needs to oppose now. Until then, we’ll see how the TEA responds. The Current has more.

TEA will review special ed limits

It’s a start.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday that his office is reviewing a monitoring system that sets an 8.5 percent benchmark for special education enrollments and strictly audits school districts with enrollments that exceed that rate for students with disabilities.

The Chronicle reported Sunday that TEA officials had arbitrarily selected the 8.5 percent rate in implementing the system a decade ago. Since then, Texas’ special education enrollment has declined from 12 percent in 2004 to exactly 8.5 percent in 2015, by far the lowest in America.

“The Texas Education Agency is committed to conducting a detailed review of this monitoring system and how it impacts Texas students,” Morath said in a statement. “The agency will continue to convene special education advisory groups for feedback and guidance on all aspects of special education policy, as it has for years as part of its annual public rulemaking processes.”

Asked about the Chronicle’s findings at a meeting of the State Board of Education, Morath said that “we’re assessing the detailed list of statements to determine what the real impact is. … It’s a topic of high priority here.”

See here and here for the background. I might suggest that Commissioner Morath begin by speaking to his predecessors, since at least one of them had to have known all about this. It would also be nice to hear what Morath thinks the policy should be, in broad strokes if not in detail. Promising a review is not the same as promising a change. What might we expect to happen when that review has been completed?

But at least Commissioner Morath has acknowledged the issue and is doing something about it. That’s more than we can say for Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick. Thankfully, the third leg of the state leadership stool has now also acknowledged the issue.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Thursday he would work with the Texas Education Agency to address concerns about a monitoring system that has led school districts to keep thousands of children with disabilities out of special education.

“Students who need special education should not be kept out of it,” Straus said in a Facebook post, which indicated his office had delivered the same message to Education Commissioner Mike Morath. “The House appreciates the Commissioner’s attention to this issue and will work with him to address these concerns,” added Straus, R-San Antonio.

[…]

Several lawmakers, officials, teachers and advocates have expressed outrage at the target, saying it has deprived tens of thousands of disabled children an adequate education.

The Texas Education Agency has denied depriving any students of proper instruction and defended the monitoring system but promised to conduct a “detailed review” of its impact.

In his statement, Straus said the monitoring system was “designed to prevent schools from identifying students for special education when it isn’t necessary.”

However, he stressed “the importance of providing services to all students who need them while continuing to make sure that students are not improperly identified for special education.”

Straus’s legislative district is in the North East ISD, which serves northeastern San Antonio and is the second largest district in Texas’ second largest city. Its special ed enrollment has dropped from 15.3 percent in 2004 to 9.2 percent today, a 40 percent decline that is the biggest among Texas’ largest school districts.

Good for Speaker Straus. Note that his statement does include a statement of what the policy should be. It doesn’t actually promise any changes, either, but it does provide a basis for comparison with the review we’re getting. Still waiting on Abbott and Patrick, who have had the time to talk about plenty of other things in the past week, to say something about this. One might get the impression it’s not that important to them, since if it were they would have said something about it by now.

STAAR test lawsuit survives motion to dismiss

On to trial.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

La Marque ISD lawsuit tossed

The end of the line for La Marque ISD.

A Texas appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to halt the annexation of the La Marque school district by Texas City ISD.

The 3rd Texas Court of Appeals on Friday dismissed the lawsuit, saying that it lacked jurisdiction and that the lower court erred in accepting the case.

“This is the end. It’s done,” said Terry Pettijohn, a member of the deposed La Marque school board that sued to prevent the Texas Education Agency from dissolving the district.

“It’s just hard to understand how a school district that had met TEA standards and was financially solvent could have been closed,” Pettijohn said.

Former Education Commissioner Michael Williams, replaced Jan. 1 by former Dallas ISD trustee Mike Morath, last year ordered La Marque ISD to merge with the Texas City Independent School District as of July 1. State officials said the district had failed to meet its financial marks.

Morath issued a statement saying, “Our primary focus at the Texas Education Agency is ensuring that students in La Marque have access to a high quality education. We continue our work as the transition to Texas City ISD moves forward.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t expect La Marque to prevail here, and we did need a resolution one way or the other to be prepared for the next school year. I just hope this works out as planned. I’d feel a lot better about it if there had ever been any statistics published about the effect of HISD taking over North Forest, but if there are it was done in a very low key fashion. We’ll see how this goes.

STAAR screwups

From the Observer:

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

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

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

Lawsuit filed over STAAR exams

Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEA Commissioner has no opinion yet on federal transgender bathroom directive

Noted for the record.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday praised the state Supreme Court’s recent opinion upholding the state’s public school funding system and demurred on questions about bathroom use by transgender students.

“Last time I checked, it was a free country,” Morath said in a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith when asked whether Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s efforts to overturn a policy in Forth Worth allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity clashed with Morath’s belief in the importance of local control.

The issue erupted last week when the Obama administration ordered every public school in the nation to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.

[…]

But the Texas Education Agency is still reviewing the federal directive, Morath said Tuesday, contending that it was too soon for him to weigh in on the issue.

“Until we have a clear sense of our options, it’s just not appropriate for me to comment,” he said.

Not very illuminating. I’ll take him at his word about not having fully reviewed the federal directive, but that’s a temporary excuse. To be fair, if Dan Patrick shoves a potty package check bill down everyone’s throat, then Mike Morath’s opinion of the federal missive matters not at all. Still, it would be nice to know just what kind of person Mike Maroth is. Please have an answer ready the next time someone asks you about this, sir.

Lawsuits filed over teacher evaluations

This ought to be interesting.

A statewide teachers group filed a lawsuit Wednesday in an attempt to block the state from implementing a controversial system that for the first time ties assessments of educators to student performance on standardized tests.

In a lawsuit filed against Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath in Travis County District Court, the Texas State Teachers Association alleges that the new teacher evaluation system — the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS — violates state law by requiring school districts to base 20 percent of each teacher’s evaluation on “student growth measures” that include standardized test scores.

Those student growth measures may include “value added measures,” or VAM, which are “typically based on a complicated formula that compares actual student test scores to the scores predicted by a mathematical target based on the standardized test scores of similar student populations,” the association explained in a statement.

“TSTA contends that state law … clearly requires a teacher appraisal system adopted by the commissioner to be based on ‘observable, job-related behavior,’” the statement said. “But a VAM model is not ‘observable’ and is not even available to teachers and others who wish to understand the basis for their evaluations.”

“Teachers are not robots, and their performance should be evaluated by an easily understood, transparent system that helps them perfect their job performance,” association President Noel Candelaria said. “Educators’ compensation and jobs are potentially on the line here, and their work must be evaluated fairly – and legally.”

The new teacher evaluation system, which the state has been piloting for over a year, is set to take effect July 1. Participating school districts will use it to make pay, employment and other consequential decisions. It replaces a nearly 20-year-old state-recommended teacher evaluation method known as Professional Development and Appraisal System, or PDAS.

The evaluation system is called T-TESS, and I wrote about it here. The Chron notes that the TSTA wasn’t the only entity to sue over this.

The other suit, brought by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, claims the state education commissioner does not have authority to set specific evaluation criteria.

[…]

The lawsuits add to a growing list of teachers suing states over similar student test-based systems. Locally, the Houston Federation of Teachers union sued the Houston Independent School District in 2014 over its evaluation method. That case is set for jury trial in September.

HISD was one of the first large school districts in the country in 2011 to link teachers’ job ratings to their students’ test scores. Traditionally, school principals graded teachers based solely on observing them in the classroom.

The Houston school district, however, has struggled to find ways to rate all teachers in the student performance category. State exams, for example, are not offered in certain grade levels or for elective courses. Last year, 43 percent of HISD’s teachers got student performance ratings.

Even so, Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the state should not move to a similar test-based evaluation system.

“It’s affected kids in that it has detrimentally impacted the way that instruction is delivered,” Capo said. “That’s all anyone does anymore is teach to the test, period.”

See here and here for more on that HISD lawsuit. Note that the evaluation system is being pushed by one of the never-ending supply of well-funded “education reform” groups, and the law firm representing HISD in the suit also represents that group. That still strikes me as a conflict of interest. There may be value in using this kind of metric as part of a teacher’s evaluation, if everyone is in agreement about what is being measured and what the milestones are, but as the Statesman notes, we do not have consensus on this.

Morath, who was previously a Dallas school district trustee, has advocated for the use of value-added models, which supporters say increase teacher accountability and effectiveness.

The American Statistical Association, however, has cautioned school systems against relying on the models, saying teachers’ performance accounts for only a small part of the variability in how students progress.

“Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality,” the group said in a 2014 statement.

Seems like a pretty big caveat to me. I can’t say I’d want my job evaluations based on something like this, either. A statement from the TSTA is here, and Trail Blazers and the Rivard Report has more.

School districts vote to approve new UIL policy restricting transgender athletes

Unfortunate.

Despite strong opposition from LGBT advocates, representatives from Texas school districts have overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal aimed at barring transgender boys and girls from participating in athletics alongside their cisgender peers.

District superintendents and athletic directors voted 409-25 in favor of using birth certificates to determine student athletes’ gender, according to results obtained by the Observer through a request under the Texas Public Information Act.

The legislative council of the University Interscholastic League (UIL), the governing body for Texas high school sports, recommended the amendment in October, and district representatives’ ballots were due this month. According to UIL, if the amendment is approved by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, it would take effect in August.

“Because of the very detailed process UIL goes through, it’s usually a pretty clear-cut decision by the time it gets to the commissioner,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, director of media relations for the Texas Education Agency.

LGBT advocates say the amendment runs afoul of the UIL Constitution and Title IXof the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972.

The UIL is part of the University of Texas at Austin, and its constitution prohibits the legislative council or member districts from passing amendments that conflict with UT policy, which bans discrimination based on gender identity.

Both the council and the districts “had a duty to reject the amendment,” said Paul Castillo, a Dallas staff attorney for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal.

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Education has said Title IX’s prohibition against sex-based discrimination applies to trans students, meaning the amendment could expose districts to legal liability, a federal investigation and loss of funds.

“These discriminatory athletic policies, they stigmatize transgender students by singling them out,” Castillo said. “Transgender students already face high rates of physical and verbal harassment at schools.”

See here for the background. It’s just a matter of time before a lawsuit gets filed over this, and I don’t know what the response will be if and when Title IX funds get threatened. I just hope it doesn’t get too messy or expensive when the trouble starts and this thing needs to get fixed. The Trib has more.

New La Marque ISD trustees want to stop lawsuit against the TEA

Not sure about this.

Last month, the La Marque Independent School District’s board of trustees voted to mount a legal challenge to the state’s decision to close the troubled Galveston County district after years of academic and financial problems.

Now, a new controversy has added to tensions over the state’s plans to have the district annexed by the nearby Texas City ISD: the new board of managers appointed by the state to replace the La Marque ISD’s elected board of trustees is seeking to recoup $300,000 that the original trustees paid to attorneys to fight the closure.

The lead attorney says the fees are non-refundable, and vows to carry on the legal fight against the annexation.

Meanwhile the state education commissioner has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the conflict over the fee.

“They’re not going to get paid,” said Jack Christiana, the president of the new board of managers, of the attorneys suing the state. “We don’t want them to do anything on our behalf.”

Christiana said the board of managers will hire new attorneys at a meeting next week to find ways to recover the $300,000 in district funds.

[…]

Then-state Commissioner of Education Michael Williams sent a letter Dec. 31 asking Paxton whether the elected trustees’ move to pay $300,000 to the Houston-based law firm Tritico Rainey was an “unconstitutional gift of public funds,” in part because the board of trustees could not “direct the litigation” after the board of managers was put in place last month and that the attorney’s services would benefit the “individual board member plaintiffs rather than the district.”

In the letter, Williams also questioned whether the fee was unconstitutional because “there is no demonstrable public benefit to challenging closure of the district.”

Chris Tritico, who is representing four elected trustees and the school district in a lawsuit against Williams and the new state education commissioner Mike Morath, said the moves together represented an attempt by the state to muffle opposition to the district’s closure.

See here and here for the background. My personal opinion is that the new board should let the existing court case run its course. Most likely, as was the case with North Forest, they will lose and that will be that. Fighting over the fees could take longer than the fight to not close La Marque ISD in the first place, which would diminish the potential return if the new board prevailed. Letting it play out also mutes any future criticism that the dissenters were silenced. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the dissenters could win in court. I think it’s unlikely, but if they do win then it’s a good thing they fought. There will be a hearing on January 19 in Travis County, so we may get some indication of how this may play out at that time. Don;t short-circuit the process, that’s what I say.