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Robert Scott

How much testing is too much?

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

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

Texas students previously had to pass four exams to graduate.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Perry gives another middle finger to public education

It’s a twofer, actually. Here’s one.

Gov. Rick Perry named Michael Williams the new commissioner of the Texas Education Agency Monday.

A fixture of Texas Republican politics — and a former general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas — Williams resigned from the Texas Railroad Commission in 2011 after serving more than a decade on the regulatory body that oversees the state’s oil and natural gas industry.

His appointment comes at a trying time for the agency, which lost a third of its workforce after budget cuts last year. Amid anxiety from parents, educators and administrators — and backlash from lawmakers — over its transition to a rigorous new assessment and accountability system, the state is facing six lawsuits over the way it funds public schools. More than half of Texas public schools failed to meet yearly benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act, but the state remains one of the handful that have yet to seek a waiver from the requirements from the federal government. The agency will also begin the Sunset Review process in October.

Williams, who began his career as an assistant district attorney in Midland, has recently been known as a political candidate. After showing early interest in replacing Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate, he campaigned for the congressional district now held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. Williams lost the Republican primary to Wes Riddle and fellow onetime U.S. Senate candidate Roger Williams, who ultimately prevailed in a runoff.

When then-Gov. George W. Bush named Williams to the commission in 1999, he became the first African-American to hold a statewide elected position. The Midland native’s career in GOP politics began during the Ronald Reagan administration, when he served as a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Education, a legal position that is his only official previous experience in the realm of education policy.

So Williams has no education experience, but he is severely conservative and he needed a job, so Perry was there to lend him a hand. I guess just because one hates government doesn’t mean one wants to leave it and find a job in that private free-enterprise system we’ve all heard about. Williams is also a proponent of vouchers, but I’m sure he’ll put aside his long-held political beliefs and do his very best to help make public schools the best they can be. What else would we expect from a Rick Perry appointee, after all?

And here’s two:

Perry simultaneously named Lizzette Reynolds, a veteran of the agency who is currently a deputy commissioner, as Williams’ second in command. Reynolds attracted controversy in 2007 when she allegedly pushed to fire the agency’s then-science director Chris Comer for forwarding an email critical of intelligent design in violation of an internal neutrality policy. After Comer was forced to resign, the agency drew national scrutiny that included an editorial in The New York Times.

Forrest Wilder digs up some news from the time on this contretemps, and I blogged about it here, here, here, and here. Being a teacher or other employee of the public schools who supports Rick Perry is like being a chicken who supports Colonel Sanders. EoW and BOR have more, and a statement from Rep. Jessica Farrar is beneath the fold.

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Are the end of course standards too low?

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

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

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

‘False sense of security’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Forest gets a reprieve

For a year.

The long-troubled North Forest school district will remain intact for at least another year as Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott granted it a rare reprieve Friday from having to close in July.

Scott said he would give the northeast Houston district a year to improve. He said he had seen some academic progress but still had serious concerns about its financial stability.

North Forest officials, backed by several state lawmakers and a member of Congress, had appealed Scott’s earlier order to close the district. At the time, Scott said he was worried about the “long-term education of the students.”

“We do think that the district has made some improvements under this current superintendent, and there’s some legal issues that prompted this decision,” Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for Scott, said late Friday when the decision was announced.

Ratcliffe said the state faced a time crunch to get federal approval for the closure before this school year ended. The U.S. Department of Justice has to sign off to ensure voters’ rights would not be violated.

In addition, the Texas Education Agency, which Scott oversees, had not conducted the state-mandated investigation of the impact on the Houston Independent School District, which would have assumed control of North Forest and its roughly 7,500 students.

Hair Balls has a copy of the TEA’s ruling. I don’t have any strong feelings about this one way or another. The kids’ education is what matters most; everything else is subservient to that. NFISD proponents cite the work of new Superintendent Edna Forte and asked that she be given time to show that the improvements she has brought about are real. I sincerely hope she’s up to the task, but it must be noted that NFISD has a history of hiring and firing superintendents, so let’s just say the jury is still out. I hope this time around the story has a happy ending.

The “Moneyball” approach to public education

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

The poster boy for the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling for a special session

It started with the Texas State Teachers Association.

The Texas State Teachers Association today urged Gov. Rick Perry to call the Legislature into special session now to appropriate $2.5 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and head off another round of harmful cuts in local public school budgets for the 2012-2013 school year.

“It is time to stop the bleeding and stop the cuts, now!” said TSTA President Rita Haecker, who appeared at a state Capitol news conference with State Rep. Donna Howard of Austin.

[…]

TSTA believes there is enough money in the Rainy Day Fund to restore the school cuts and leave a substantial balance to address other important needs. The comptroller has estimated the fund will have a balance of $7.3 billion by the end of this budget period. Other experts believe it may grow even larger, because of higher oil prices and increased production.

Gov. Perry insisted that the Legislature leave a large balance in the Rainy Day account, even while making deep cuts in state services, during last year’s sessions. TSTA will be circulating petitions, urging the governor to do the right thing now and call lawmakers to Austin. Texans also can sign the petition at:

http://www.tstaweb.net/forms/2012cutsPetition.html

“It is time for the governor to cut the politics and stop cutting away at our children, their education and our state’s future,” Haecker said. “He can call a special session, stop the cuts and do what’s right for Texas.”

Remember, the Lege underfunded Medicaid by nearly $5 billion, so most of the Rainy Day Fund is spoken for. Haecker and the TSTA are calling for the extra Rainy Day funds, which have accumulated over the past few months as the economy has improved, to be used.

Former Democratic House Caucus chair Jim Dunnam echoed the call in the op-ed pages.

Just back from his failed presidential bid, Gov. Perry has been urged by Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and by educator groups to call a summer special session of the Texas Legislature to address budget and school finance issues. It’s so bad that even Perry’s own appointee as head of the Texas Education Agency, Robert Scott, just said he can’t certify Texas’ ban on social promotion until the current lack of funding is addressed. Perry should heed these responsible calls to fix the problem.

In 2011, $5.4 billion was cut from public education; that’s more than $1,000 per child. Those cuts will be felt even more in the fall than in the current school year. In addition, distribution of public school dollars has gotten way out of kilter, with students really the ones suffering.

Last week, Perry ignored the calls for a special session and instead chose to minimize the role of money in education, saying, “ultimately success is about the results that we get out of our schools.” Results do measure success, but the fact is that schools receiving the most money are the ones showing the successful results.

[…]

Gov. Perry needs to listen to Ogden and others and convene a special session this year. Why await the inevitable Supreme Court ruling when the problem is staring us in the face? School funding is once again totally inadequate, and funding imbalances are determining the winners and losers in our accountability system. Ironically, Texas now has $6.1 billion just sitting in our rainy day fund – more than what was cut from schools last year.

We have to stop blaming everyone else for our problems and look in the mirror when we look at unemployment, the deficit and our economy. Our methodical and steady defunding of education at all levels is a root cause of many of these problems. The Legislature needs to go back to work now. Otherwise, our tomorrow might not come out like we want, and only we will be to blame.

Democratic Senate candidate Paul Sadler, who was an education finance policy expert while in the State House, put the focus on his presumed opponent in November, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst should “get to work or resign,” says Paul Sadler, former House Public Education chairman, who believes state lawmakers need to come back to the state Capitol to work on school funding in a special legislative session.

Dewhurst is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate; Sadler is running for the Democratic nomination.

Only Gov. Rick Perry can call a special legislative session, but Dewhurst should be supporting the call, Sadler says.

“Massive cuts to education this year, followed by systematic cuts planned for next year, will create a “Double Robin Hood” scenario for many public schools,” Sadler said. “I call this ‘The Dewhurst Disaster.

Paul Sadler has a simple message for David Dewhurst: “Get to work, or resign.”

“During the last legislative session, it is now obvious that both Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst were interested only in their selfish desire to run for higher office and were too afraid of the right-wing extremists to tackle the hard issues of our state created by their mismanagement,” Sadler said. “I can certainly understand why both of these men would try to leave the State before Texans learn of the disaster they have created.”

I’ve put Sadler’s full statement beneath the fold. I confess that calls for special sessions always make me queasy. Only the Governor can set the agenda for a special session. Once the door is open, you never know what he might let in. Even if I knew the scope would be limited to this issue, I can’t say I’m comfortable with this Legislature being called back into action by this Governor to fix the problems they caused. Why should we expect a different outcome this time around? But these are academic concerns, because everyone knows Rick Perry has no interest in fixing anything. What’s important is keeping the spotlight on this failure, and how the recent welcome news about sales tax receipts and the Rainy Day Fund balance obviate the already limp excuses that Perry and Dewhurst and the rest of them had for gutting public education in the first place. This election, the next election, however many elections it takes, need to be about the failure of the state’s Republican leadership and Legislature to provide for Texas’ future. So sign the petition and join the call, and mark this date on your calendar:

And if that’s not enough, as BOR suggests, you can join with the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, who are one of the school finance plaintiffs.

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Shapiro backs STAAR delay

This was unexpected.

Sen. Florence Shapiro

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

UPDATE: Commissioner Scott has authorized the delay.

As always, the hole is bigger than we thought

Remember how the Republicans in the Lege underfunded Medicaid by $4.5 billion, which they will have to tap the Rainy Day Fund in 2013 to deal with, in order to make the budget for this biennium appear to be “balanced”? Turns out we’re going to need a lot more than that.

Tom Suehs

Kudos to the Quorum Report’s John Reynolds for reporting State Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs’ latest prediction on the looming state Medicaid funding shortfall which will have to be addressed by the Legislature when it meets in January 2013.

As has been widely reported, the Texas Legislature passed a so-called “balanced” budget by intentionally under-funding the Medicaid program by $4.5 billion, essentially choosing to postpone payment of that bill until 2013. Now, escalating caseload growth will bump that figure into the atmosphere, Suehs told hospital administrators in a speech Wednesday.

According to Reynold’s report:

That multi-billion dollar bill to sustain the Medicaid program – one of the state’s biggest cost drivers – will drop on lawmakers’ desks next January at the same time that demand for services elsewhere in the state budget continues to increase.

Suehs told the Texas Hospital Association that his message isn’t all that different from the one he sent two years ago. “I basically said something to the effect, ‘I don’t see how the Legislature’s gonna get out of this session without some form of revenue.’ I got in trouble for that,” Suehs said. “And I’m going to say the same thing today. I think I have a little bit more data with me today.”

Leaving a shortfall in the current budget has “a compounding effect” on future needs, Suehs told QR after his remarks. Still, he acknowledged at the conference that the level of need in the Medicaid budget concerns him.

“I don’t sleep some nights just thinking about having to lay that type of number out at some point,” he said.

Reynolds goes on to point out that the Legislature probably will spend some $7 billion left in the state’s Rainy Day Fund to cover part of the Medicaid shortfall. But Sueh’s predictions highlight the importance of the new Medicaid “transformational waiver” I highlight in my column in Wednesday’s print edition of the Chronicle. Approved by the Obama Administration in December, the new waiver empowers local hospital districts to re-define the rules for Medicaid reimbursements. Proponents believe the changes, if done correctly, could save taxpayer dollars, and help fund more patients who will be eligible for care under the federal health reform law.

Couple things to note here. One is that the recent uptick in sales tax revenue means that the Rainy Day Fund is a bit fatter than it was at sine die. That has led some folks to call on Governor Perry to call a special session to use some of that extra dough to mitigate the second year of cuts to public education. The TSTA has a petition you can sign if you want to join in that call. I support the effort, but I expect it to go nowhere for precisely this reason, which is the main reason why the Lege and Perry resisted so mightily calls to use the Rainy Day Fund originally. You can’t spend what’s already spent.

Suehs wasn’t the only Perry appointee going off the reservation. Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has been talking out of school (as it were) as well.

Scott warned school administrators that the ban on social promotions – a legacy of Gov. George W. Bush – will be lifted unless lawmakers provide money to help struggling students.

More money also will be needed to pay for the state’s new school accountability system, whose high-stakes testing may be going too far, Scott told school officials.

Scott’s statement that believes testing has gone too far drew a predictable rebuke from the sort of people who want accountability and standards but don’t want to pay for them. You do have to wonder what Perry is thinking, with his hired hands making trouble like that. Anyway, in re: schools, even all that Rainy Day money won’t get at the real problem:

Everyone agrees that Texas needs to do a better job of educating the state’s five million students in public schools. Folks like [Scott] McCown and [Sen. Leticia] Van de Putte, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, say it will take more money.

“What folks just don’t appreciate is how much we have cut,” McCown said, noting that state tax revenue would have to increase $13 billion a year to reach 1994 levels – the peak year for a measure of “how much of our total economy went to state and local taxes.”

Political realities mean that significant tax reform won’t happen next session, he said. It will take a modest, smart approach to put Texas on the right road resulting in several billion dollars of additional revenue, he said.

“It would be a responsible use of the rainy day fund and it would include revenue measures such as increasing the cigarette tax and eliminating the high cost gas exemption from the severance tax,” McCown said.

“If we don’t do that, then we are gong to face really serious damage to our schools and just not being able to help people as we move out of the difficult economic times in this recovery,” he said. “Regular Texans have to speak up loudly about what they want but we can have responsible approach to meeting the state’s needs in the next session if they do that.”

Well, that’s what the next couple of elections need to be about. Nothing will change until the Lege and the state leadership changes. EoW has more.

HISD to take over North Forest ISD

This is going to be a challenge, assuming it does go forward.

The North Forest Independent School District is nearing the end of its appeals to stay open, paving the way for Houston ISD to take over.

State education commissioner Robert Scott notified the North Forest administration in a letter released Friday that he was officially revoking the district’s accreditation after years of academic and financial woes.

Scott gave notice in July of his intent to close the district, but some in North Forest have remained optimistic that it wasn’t a done deal.

The district can appeal the ruling to Scott, but the commissioner had held strong that the 7,500 North Forest ISD students would be better served in neighboring HISD. The takeover is set to take place at the start of next school year, though HISD officials have said students can start enrolling in the district now.

The U.S. Justice Department still must approve the deal. But if prior rulings involving North Forest are an indication, the federal agency will sign off.

Here’s HISD’s official statement.

Scott has assigned Kay Karr, who is now serving as the Commissioner’s appointed conservator in North Forest, to oversee the district’s closure and annexation.

“It will be the role of the conservator to facilitate the annexation process in conjunction with the Houston ISD to ensure a smooth transition and transfer for the district and its students,” Scott wrote in his letter addressed to North Forest ISD officials.

HISD Board President Paula Harris and Superintendent Terry Grier said they are committed to working with North Forest leaders, parents, students, staff, and Ms. Karr to prepare for the upcoming school year.

“While HISD did not seek this annexation, we stand ready to welcome the entire North Forest community into the HISD family,” Harris said. “We believe all children have the ability to excel in the classroom. We will hold ourselves accountable for making sure that happens.”

Working in partnership with the North Forest community, HISD’s first priority will be to improve the level of academic rigor in North Forest’s neighborhood schools, Grier said.

“Strong neighborhood schools are the foundation of strong communities,” Grier said. “The work that is underway in HISD to place a great teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school will benefit the children of North Forest, just as it has in HISD.”

You can see Commissioner Scott’s letter here. The magnitude of the challenge for HISD can be fairly succinctly summed up by Wikipedia:

NFISD is the poorest district in Harris County. During a period NFISD made $1,711 per student in property taxes. Despite having a higher tax rate than Deer Park Independent School District, that district made $7,021 per student in property taxes. As of 2003 the NFISD attendance zone had very little industry.

In 2006 the area within NFISD had the lowest property value per student ratio in Harris County. Its property value per student ratio was less than half of the average ratio in the State of Texas. Within the district, in 2006 the typical single family house was appraised to be worth $51,106. 42 of the 15,637 houses within the NFISD boundaries had an appraised value greater than $200,000.

You want a good example of why local property taxes are a poor way to fund public schools, there you have it. How can anyone claim that the kids in NFISD get the same opportunity as kids in other districts given the vast difference in tax revenues? Obviously, they get support from the state that evens things out a bit, but come on. There’s no way they’re getting what they need.

You can see a map of the NFISD territory here; you may need to zoom in a little. My initial thoughts are that this ought to be a good deal for the children and parents of NFISD, as they will now have all of HISD’s schools to choose from, and that I wonder how the addition of NFISD will affect HISD’s Trustee districts. I sense that we may have some mid-decade redistricting in our future. At least, I’m assuming that NFISD’s Board would be dissolved, and the new territory would be worked into HISD with the existing districts adjusted as needed. That may also mean special elections, but I’m just guessing here. Anyone know what precedents there may be?

UPDATE: North Forest isn’t going without a fight.

Higher standards mean lower ratings

Schools across the state have seen their academic ratings drop as a result of changes made in how the Texas Education Agency computes them.

The new accountability ratings released Friday for public school campuses in the state’s 1,228 districts and charter schools present a “far more accurate look” at academic performance, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said.

They are also markedly lower — with far fewer schools achieving the highest ratings than last year. Instead, most schools fall in the middle “acceptable” category.

Many districts find themselves with lower ratings even though their student achievement has remained the same. That’s because the formula used to calculate the ratings, based primarily on students’ standardized test scores, no longer includes a mechanism called the Texas Projection Measure. The TPM gauged students’ future test scores based on a campus-wide average instead of using their actual test scores and had the effect of giving schools credit for students passing when they hadn’t.

In April, Scott announced he would discontinue the measure after state lawmakers took a unanimous vote against it during debate on a testing bill.

The Chron gives the local picture.

In the Houston Independent School District, the “unacceptable” campuses more than tripled to 25 — or 9 percent of its rated schools.

Statewide, about 7 percent of schools netted the lowest rating this year. The unacceptable list grew from 104 schools to 569.

[…]

The ratings, from best to worst, are exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, honored last year as the state’s largest “recognized” district, dropped to “acceptable.” HISD, the biggest district, also was “acceptable.”

Among the area’s other large districts, Katy, Pasadena, Conroe, Alief, Klein, Clear Creek, Humble, Lamar Consolidated, Galena Park and Pearland earned “recognized” status.

You can see ratings for all HISD schools here, and for all school districts in Texas here. It is important to remember that last year’s ratings were basically bogus. If you do keep that in mind, HISD actually showed some improvement.

The news that Houston ISD’s number of exemplary schools dropped from 101 in 2010 to 59 in 2011, according to the Texas Education Agency’s figures just released at 1 p.m. today, could only add more fuel to the fire of critics who are certain Superintendent Terry Grier is destroying HISD.

Except that if the now discarded and discredited Texas Projection Measure (a method of giving extra points to schools by predicting that certain kids who failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills actually would pass in the next year) was removed from last year’s results, and other new “accountability measures” were factored in, according to HISD, then in 2010 there were 46 HISD schools that were really exemplary.

Which would make this year — at least in the exemplary category — an improvement. And Terry Grier a hero (or at least not a complete goat)?

Elsewhere in the annual ratings, the number of HISD’s academically recognized schools in 2011 was 106 (107 last year with the TPM), and academically acceptable increased to 79 (from 49 with TPM).

The number of academically unacceptable schools soared to 21 from last year’s 7 — but HISD’s recalculation last year’s effort says it would have been 23 — so hey, put another one in the win column.

In addition to the dropping of TPM, there were other ways in which the accountability system was made more difficult. Special ed kids were counted for the first time, and the standards for kids with limited English proficiency and math scores were raised. And before you get too used to this new/old way of scoring things, get ready for them to change again.

This is the last year for the TAKS testing program, which began in 2003. Schools will get a one-year reprieve from ratings as students take the new exams, expected to be more challenging.

Test scores traditionally rise over the years as teachers and students get used to the format of an exam. Statewide, at least 90 percent of students passed the TAKS in reading, writing and social studies this year. At least 80 percent passed in math and science.

HISD saw its scores remain mostly flat this year. The district’s passing rate in math rose two points to 83 percent, while writing dropped two points to 91 percent.

“Schools have a pretty good routine based on the TAKS,” said state Rep. Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands who chairs the House Public Education Committee. “It will change when we get to the (new) end-of-course exams and the STAAR tests.”

The forthcoming STAAR standard is already causing a lot of anxiety in school districts. The good news for Houston teachers is that they will be cut some slack in their evaluations.

​In a startling reversal of previous statements and his own avowed philosophies, Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier today released a statement that he will recommend to the school board that teachers not be evaluated by their students’ test scores this next school year.

It was only in May that trustees — urged on by Grier — voted 7-2 (Carol Galloway and Juliet Stipeche dissenting) to include student test scores in the formal list of criteria used to evaluate a teacher’s performance.

The May vote came after several months of entreaty from HISD teachers who argued that it would be especially inappropriate this coming year to judge teachers on their students’ test scores given that the state was introducing a new standardized test system that is replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. (Historically, student test scores drop after a new test is adopted.)

But Grier and his administration had remained adamant that it was inconceivable that the district have this information — student test scores — and not use it to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom. They have repeatedly said that teachers are the most crucial element in whether a child succeeds or fails in school.

It is difficult to understand what new information became available in the two months since May that would change Grier’s position on this. In his statement, he references “feedback we’ve heard this summer from teachers about taking on these challenges,” but he certainly heard plenty of this feedback before school was out.

Better late than never. How did your school do?

SBOE manages to not screw up science supplements

Baby steps.

The quietude of yesterday’s State Board of Education meeting came to a screeching halt during today’s final vote over supplemental science materials.

After a unanimous preliminary vote on Thursday, the board appeared split over alleged errors in how evolution was addressed in a high school biology submission from Holt McDougal.

A board-appointed reviewer had identified the errors but the publisher maintained that the points at issue were not wrong. It was up to the board to referee the dispute and the mood turned testy.

In the end, the board members chose to punt the contentious issue to Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

“My goal would be to try to find some common ground,” Scott said.

Then the board unanimously approved the online science materials that will supplement existing textbooks.

That may not sound like much, but it was enough to get both the NCSE and the Texas Freedom Network to put out victory statements. Sometimes, not going backwards counts as going forward. What a difference having a couple fewer wingnuts can make. The Trib, Burka, and TFN Insider have more.

Day One at the SBOE

Here’s your TFN Insider coverage of today’s SBOE science hearings. In Part I of the hearings, we find that the SBOE may not be such a major factor in school curriculum any more:

10:20  – Board members are quizzing the commissioner about how the new rules governing the purchase of instructional materials — changes codified in Senate Bill 6, passed during the legislative session and signed by the governor earlier this week — will play out in school districts. Commissioner Scott rightly notes that the law represents a sea-change in the way the schools purchase materials.Note: TFN is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive analysis of this new law and its likely effects on the state board’s role in vetting and approving classroom materials. We plan to publish that analysis in the coming weeks. TFN communications director Dan Quinn previewed our conclusions in a story in today’s USA Today: “It has the great potential to diminish the influence of the State Board of Education.”

And we find that maybe, just maybe, the winds have shifted a bit:

11:20 – Interesting news out of the SBOE Committee on Instruction meeting earlier this morning. That five-member committee has long been dominated by far-right members, but there are signs that a change is coming. The committee’s first order of business today was to elect a new chair, after Barbara Cargill announced she was stepping down. In a move that seemed to surprise Cargill, George Clayton, R-Dallas, nominated new board member Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, as chair. Clayton and Farney, though conservative, have been ostracized by Cargill and the far-right faction. Cargill immediately nominated fellow far-right conservative Terri Leo, R-Spring, and the vote was deadlocked at two votes for each candidate. Democratic board member Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, is absent from today’s meetings, so the committee moved to postpone the election of chair until the September meeting when Berlanga will be present. Since there is no love lost between Berlanga and the far-right bloc, it seems likely that she will vote for Farney at the September meeting. Could this be a coup, signaling a return to common sense on this critical committee?

We can only hope. In Part II we find that all those annoying pro-science testifiers are making Ken Mercer and David Bradley cry, and in Part I of the debate, we find there’s nothing to be alarmed about just yet. Which counts as good news with the SBOE. Here’s Steven Schafersman‘s coverage; Josh Rosenau has weighed in on Twitter but not yet on his blog. All the Twitter action is on the #SBOE hashtag if you’re into that sort of thing.

Finally, an object lesson in not being able to do more with less:

With one-third fewer people, the Texas Education Agency just can’t do everything it used to do.

State Board of Education members were were told on multiple occasions this morning that a lack of time and staffers had prevented the agency from doing some of the prep work that it would have done previously, such as creating a briefing book on new legislation.

Citing similar constraints, agency staffers said they had yet to produce rules for the implementation of Senate Bill 6, which fundamentally changes how school districts can use state dollars to buy instructional materials and technology. It was passed during the special session last month.

School districts, for example, are waiting to learn how much they will get under the new system to cover the cost of textbooks, hardware, software and other expenses associated with disseminating lessons to students.

Sometimes, when you fire a bunch of people, stuff just doesn’t get done. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

UPDATE: So far, so good. On to tomorrow.

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

So what happens if there isn’t a school finance deal?

You may recall that having to change the school finance formula to distribute the billions of cuts to public education is causing problems with the budget. What happens if no changes are made to the formula? The Trib contemplates the question.

So what would doing nothing look like? Without legislation that provides a mechanism to allocate the billions of dollars in cuts, the state would have to pay districts under existing law. That would mean borrowing from the second year of the biennium to fully fund the first year. When the money dwindles in the second year, Commissioner of Education Robert Scott would have to ask the Legislative Budget Board to tell the Legislature to vote on using the Rainy Day Fund to fill in the gap. He also has the authority to decompress property tax rates, which would allow school boards to make up the difference in state funding with local revenue.

The former is the expected choice — an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry isn’t likely to endorse a property tax hike — and it would probably happen when the 83rd Legislature, which meets in 2013, is up and running. Tapping the Rainy Day Fund in that situation would require approval from three-fifths of the House and Senate. If they decided not to access the fund, Scott would distribute what’s left of state money through what’s called proration, which would proportionally allocate funding according to districts’ statewide property value, with the idea that the state would pay back its share during the next budget cycle. That could potentially leave districts under proration for only a few months. Or he could opt for a combination of decompressing tax rates and proration.

There are serious drawbacks to avoiding school finance legislation, said veteran school finance expert Lynn Moak, who runs the consulting firm Moak, Casey, and Associates. The 1993 statute governing proration, he said, addresses scenarios in which the state comes up short by relatively small amounts in the second year of the biennium and isn’t designed for a multi-billion dollar reduction.

“It wasn’t written against the background that we intentionally screw things up by not having a school finance bill and appropriations bill that match,” he said. “It never visualized the kind of situation we’re talking about.”

There is also uncertainty as to how proration would work with target revenue and the “hold harmless” guarantee the Legislature made to districts with the 2006 property tax reduction. “We haven’t done this since property tax relief funding, and statutes on proration and relief weren’t written together,” Moak said.

So as is the case with the Senate budget and Medicaid, the most likely scenario is that the Rainy Day Fund gets tapped to cover the shortfall. How it is that this could possibly be better public policy than just tapping it now to avoid the shortfalls, and fixing the structural deficit that will lead to future shortfalls, is an exercise best left to the geniuses at conservative think tanks who believe that the time to act is always during the next crisis, which thanks to their preferred policies will be just around the corner. This is more than a theoretical concern:

The Texas House’s barebones budget proposal would run out of money for public schools by early 2013 and for Medicaid soon after unless lawmakers add money to the plan and revise education funding formulas, the chamber’s chief budget writer said Thursday.

“There’s a lot of holes in that budget that we need to fill,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told his colleagues after postponing bills that would use accounting maneuvers and other changes to provide more revenue.

The House needs to take up the repeatedly postponed legislation next week, he said. The legislative session ends May 30.

[…]

Besides agreeing on a funding level for the overall budget — and finding the revenue to pay for it — lawmakers must agree on a school finance plan that would allow them to spend billions of dollars less through the next two years.

Otherwise, current school funding formulas would entitle school districts to current spending levels, Pitts said. At those levels, under the House budget proposal, Pitts said the money would run out by February 2013 or perhaps months earlier.

“That means the schools cannot operate. The teachers will not be paid,” Pitts said.

The House proposal would give schools $8 billion less through the next two years than they’d get under current funding formulas. The Senate proposal’s cutback would be half that.

A Legislative Budget Board staffer said in a memo that if education were underfunded and formulas weren’t changed, the LBB would propose spending money from the rainy day fund for fiscal year 2013 to meet the gap. If the Legislature didn’t do so, the education commissioner would pro-rate state aid.

A special session is looking pretty likely, so there is still a chance to do something about this. Otherwise, Medicaid also runs out of money at about the same time as the schools. What it comes down to is simply this: We can spend Rainy Day funds now to plug this hole, or we can spend it later. We will continue to be in this position until we fix the underlying problem. And that will never happen until we have a different Legislature. Burka, EoW, and Abby Rapoport have more.

Where’s the money for new textbooks coming from?

Nobody knows just yet.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Performance pay for teachers

I’m very wary of this.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting the budget means cutting education

No two ways around it.

As the single biggest consumer of state money, the Texas public education system stands to lose millions of dollars as the state grapples with a looming budget shortfall.

Education Commissioner Robert Scott has suggested more than $260 million in cuts from the state’s almost $40 billion education budget for the next two years. Some of those would reach into the classroom, eliminating money for new science labs, textbooks and teacher development. Those recommendations have infuriated teachers.

Gov. Rick Perry’s “budgetary policies are wrecking the public schools and jeopardizing our children’s future,” said Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. “The governor can talk all he wants about school savings … but most districts and educators are already stretched so thin, there is little, if anything, left to save.”

The budget proposal for the Texas Education Agency would ax millions of dollars for a teacher mentoring program and other continuing education opportunities for teachers. It also would cut $35 million that was set aside in the previous budget to help schools build new science labs to go along with a new requirement that high school students take four years of science classes.

The reality is very simple. Texas has a young and growing population. A large and increasing number of public school students come from poor and/or immigrant families. School districts are completely strapped, thanks to the economy and the property tax cuts from the 2006 special session. How much more cutbacks can schools take? And why won’t Commissioner Scott show up at legislative hearings to answer these questions?

I’ll say it again, for the umpty-umpth time, that what we have here is first and foremost a revenue problem. At least some members of the Republican leadership are willing to admit that, even if they won’t admit that they caused this problem in the first place by supporting that ginormous unaffordable property tax cut from 2006. The system they want to scrap now is the one they created before as the solution to the previous system that they said needed to be scrapped. How many times are we going to repeat the same mistakes before we try a different approach?

It’s true, as Rep. Scott Hochberg discussed in his interview with me that there are savings to be found in the public school budget. They involve reallocating resources, not resorting to the lazy tactic of across-the-board cuts, as if no item in the budget is more important than any other. It does have the advantage of being easier than thinking, though.

Speaking of thinking, it would be a good idea if we all did some about the new end of course exams, their potential effect on graduation rates, and how we can best equip our teachers to get students ready for them. I expect exactly nothing on this from Governor Perry or Robert Scott, so it’ll be up to the rest of us to figure it out.

Feds reject Texas’ application for education funds

Oops.

The U.S. Department of Education has rejected Texas’ application for $830 million in federal money for schools and asked the state to resubmit its request without conditions.

The rejection was based on a line in the state’s application that said Texas’ constitution and laws supersede any assurances made by the governor in the application. Republican Gov. Rick Perry and the state’s top education official added the language because, in order to get the money, Texas must ensure schools will be funded at a certain level for the next three years — an assurance they believe is unconstitutional.

Texas officials responded with a letter Thursday saying the earliest they could constitutionally guarantee the amount of money Texas spends on schools is next July, after the next state budget becomes law. The letter asks the Education Department for a written commitment to save the funds for Texas until that time.

You know, this really shouldn’t be that hard. All that needs to be done is to say that we’ll try our level best to comply with the regulation. To say that we’ll try, but we probably can’t do it, that just doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. At least we were given a second chance; let’s hope we don’t screw it up again.

Perry asks for federal education funds

About time.

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday submitted the state’s application for the money, which is intended to help school districts save teacher jobs now.

But Texas faced a bigger hurdle than other states because of an amendment authored by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, that required Texas to assure that state education spending for the next three years would remain on par with current spending.

In an effort to comply with that Texas-specific amendment, Perry committed to “prioritiz(ing) public education funding” in the next budget, though he did not offer the more binding assurances about education spending that Doggett had wanted.

Perry maintains that he cannot provide that assurance without violating the state constitution because the governor can neither appropriate money nor bind a future Legislature to spending money.

Perry’s commitment will probably not be enough to meet the requirements of the amendment right now. Even so, the money could still be available for Texas in 2011 when the Legislature convenes to write the next two-year budget, according to Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

“The Department assured me and the Office of the Governor, both in our meeting in Washington, D.C., and in a follow-up conference call, that the Department has all necessary authority to and will…reserve the $830 million for Texas until the 2012-13 budget becomes law and Texas is awarded the $830 million,” Scott wrote the Education Department.

So all that huffing and puffing was mostly bluffing – you will note, no lawsuits have been filed. Sending that letter to the feds didn’t stop Perry from sending a letter to school superintendents asking them to write the Obama administration to criticize the Doggett amendment, but that plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The best outcome remains the case where the Lege promises to use this money on education and then does so. Here’s hoping for that.

Federal education funds still in limbo

All talk, no action.

A high-level meeting of state and federal officials aimed at finding a way for Texas to access $830 million in emergency education aid failed to produce a clear path forward, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“This afternoon’s meeting was cordial, with all parties trying to get these education funds flowing to Texas classrooms as quickly as possible,” Education Commissioner Robert Scott said in a statement.

[…]

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, added a provision to that bill that singled out Texas’ education money and required the state to provide assurances that it would maintain current education spending levels for the next three years. Other states have to agree to that spending level for only one year.

[…]

Scott said that talks will continue with the Department of Education.

Education Department press secretary Sandra Abrevaya said: “We are working constructively with state officials to figure out how we can, subject to statutory requirements, get these funds to serve Texas students.”

How hard is this? Seriously. Money comes with strings all the time. Other states have to meet the same requirement for one year. What’s the problem?

I note, by the way, that despite all the earlier saber-rattling and lawsuit-threatening, all is currently quiet on the legal front. Has Team Perry quietly retreated, or are they biding their time? Maybe we’ll know when an agreement is finally reached.

How the schools are really doing

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

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

Where all of the children are above average

Here are your school ratings, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Including charter schools, here’s a summary of how the state’s 1,237 districts performed:

  • Exemplary 239 19%
  • Recognized 597 48%
  • Academically Acceptable 346 28%
  • Academically Unacceptable 45 4%
  • Not Rated: Other 10 1%

Again, including charter schools, here’s a summary of how the state’s 8,435 campuses performed:

  • Exemplary 2,624 31%
  • Recognized 3,153 37%
  • Academically Acceptable 1,886 22%
  • Academically Unacceptable 125 1.5%
  • Not Rated: Other 647 7%

Click here for summaries of each district in Texas

If only these ratings meant something useful. TEA Commissioner Robert Scott is talking about making changes to the Texas Projection Measure to make it more useful and accurate, and that’s a good thing. It’s just too bad that Scott had to be dragged kicking and whining about politics to that conclusion. Martha has more.

TEA Commissioner Scott defends Texas Projection Measure

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott takes advantage of a friendly audience to lash out at critics of the Texas Projection Measure.

Scott, speaking to the State Board of Education, said the so-called Texas Projection Measure has been misunderstood and misrepresented by critics who contend the policy gives a false impression of school performance.

The complex formula allows schools and districts to count as passing some students who actually fail the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills if the projection measure shows they are likely to pass in a future year.

“There is a little bit of election year politics going on here,” Scott said. “It is very easy to demagogue. It is very easy for someone to say they gave students credit for failing.”

Too bad he didn’t have the guts to say this to Scott Hochberg. It would have been nice to know how he would have answered those questions, instead of leaving his assistants to hang out to dry.

The commissioner also pointed to scores of e-mails from superintendents, principals and teachers across the state who wrote that the projection measure was beneficial for their students and schools — and should be retained. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of all e-mails received by the Texas Education Agency through the beginning of this week.

“Please keep TPM and do not suspend the use of the TPM for school accountability ratings,” said Lewisville High School Principal Brad Burns, reflecting the viewpoints of numerous principals in Texas.

“Whether TPM was good, bad or in-between, we had children for the first time in their lives that experienced success,” wrote Temple schools Superintendent Robin Wuebker-Battershell. “Retool it if necessary, but don’t surrender the concept.”

And Weatherford High School Principal David Belding urged Scott to please “not dismantle a system that gives schools with more difficult student groups to educate the chance to be recognized for moving those students forward. That is what TPM does.”

Look, nobody is attacking the idea of a means to measure growth. My understanding is that such a thing is required by No Child Left Behind, so totally scrapping it isn’t an option. The problem is that as a way to measure the growth of students who are not already passing their tests – that is to say, to measure the growth of the students it was really designed to measure – TPM sucks. In mathematical terms, it’s a lousy model. Pointing that out isn’t politics, but distorting that criticism is. Can we please focus on the real issue, so that we have accurate data about our teachers, students, and school districts and so that the real progress they have made doesn’t get lost under the weight of a bad metric? Thanks.

Nightly News Update: Monday Edition

More up-to-date linkage while Kuff sings Kumbaya in the wood goes on a snipe hunt.

» Chron: Kids’ failure is adult’s ‘success’ (Rick Casey)
Maybe it’s just me, but the immediacy of this column seems a bit like an afterthought since TEA chief Robert Scott has already announced sent a non-descript email to nervous school admins that he’s thinking about modifying or possibly kinda dropping the whole Texas Projection Measure nonsense. If he’s looking for a rug to sweep the thing under, I guess someone should tell him that politics is a tough business in that regard.

» Chron: Museum to stay open 24 hours for ‘corpse flower’
I’m all for expanding the museum experience, but a 24hr vigil for the stinkiest flower known to mankind strikes me as one tough draw. That said, it beats what the zoo has going on.

» Two words: Coach Bagwell. I’d consider it one of life’s great ironies if the player with the weirdest batting stance turned this team around.

And in news that Kuff wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole: Carrie Underwood is now married and Paul Gilbert has a new instrumental CD coming out. The first pretty much balances out the fact that Sandra Bullock is once again on the market. The latter is payback (in the form of career longevity) for the fact that Mr. Big never had a #1 hit for one of their heavier tunes.

Bad projections

Just go read this Trib story about how the Texas Education Agency’s Texas Projection Measure, which purports to measure student academic growth as a way to evaluate school districts, is basically a load of hooey. It was the subject of that House Public Education Committee hearing that TEA Commissioner Robert Scott blew off and left his underlings to twist in the wind last week. When you’re done with that, go read Rick Casey‘s last two columns. As a result of all this negative attention, Commissioner Scott says the TEA may suspend the use of TPM. I say if we’re going to have accountability – and we should! – let’s do it right, and do it in a way that we can have confidence in that respects the work that our teachers and principals and students and everyone else who works with them do.

Who wants to answer for Rick Perry’s policies?

There was a hearing of the House Public Education Committee yesterday to discuss the Texas Education Agency’s controversial methodology for rating school districts, but the person responsible for that metric declined to show up to explain it.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, chairman of an appropriations subcommittee overseeing the education budget, was not too pleased that Education Commissioner Robert Scott stood up the committee on Tuesday.

Scott’s absence, Hochberg said, reminded legislators once again that “the commissioner only works for one person and he’s the person who lives in that other house.”

[…]

The main issue Hochberg and the other members wanted to discuss with Scott was the use of the Texas Projection Measure to improve schools’ ratings under the state accountability system.

Used for the first time last year, the measure is intended to show whether a student who fails the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is projected to pass the test within the next three years. If so, that student counts as passing for the school’s rating.

Some people have called into question whether the measure is providing an overly sunny picture of improving school performance. For instance, of the 74 school districts that were newly rated exemplary last year, 73 of them earned that highest distinction because the Texas Projection Measure lifted their passing rates.

Hochberg said such a significant one-year increase made him question whether the improved ratings last year was a function of better performance or a faulty measure. He cited an example in which 4th-grader who earned a zero on the writing test could count as passing if he or she had barely passing scores on the math and reading tests.

He suggested that the measure should not be used again when the 2010 scores are released on July 30.

It would be nice to know what Perry appointee Scott had to say about this, but he ducked and covered and left the task to his underlings, who got good and grilled in Scott’s absence. I guess I can’t blame Scott for taking a powder – I wouldn’t want to have to answer for anything the Perry administration is responsible for if I could help it.

Lawsuit over grading policies

A number of school districts, mostly in the Houston area, have a policy of not giving kids a grade lower than 50 in any grading period. The idea is that by setting a floor on grades, it gives kids the chance to still eventually pass the class, which in turn gives them a reason to keep trying. A law passed in the last legislative session has been interpreted by the Texas Education Agency to disallow that practice. The school districts have filed suit to be able to keep doing it their way.

Minimum-grading policies, according to the school districts, are part of a strategy to prevent dropouts because they give students a mathematical shot at passing a course — if they earn high enough marks in other grading periods. For example, a student who received a 30 grade for the first six weeks but passed the next five grading periods with 75s, still would fail the course, with a 68. But if the school gave the student a 50, instead of a 30, the cumulative grade would be passing.

“We’re not giving passing grades. A 50 is way below failing,” Alief school board member Sarah Winkler said in defense of her district’s policy. “All we’re doing is giving them a grade that if they put forth significant effort they would be able to pass. What would be the point of a student making any effort if they cannot pass?”

[State Education Commissioner Robert] Scott, in his response to the lawsuit, characterizes the districts’ claims as illogical.

“Under the districts’ interpretation, a student could complete no assignments and still get a 50 on his or her report card,” the response says. “This interpretation would render the entire statute meaningless … and there would be no purpose to requiring actual grades on assignments and examinations.”

From the testimony given, it seems the school districts have a legitimate gripe.

According to the school districts’ attorney, David Feldman, Scott “totally jumped the gun” by sending a memo to every superintendent in the state in October 2009 explaining that the grading law applies to all types of grades.

David Anderson, the general counsel of the Texas Education Agency, which Scott runs, testified that Scott was simply explaining his understanding of the law, not overstepping his bounds by creating a new rule.

But when questioned about the actual language of the law, he conceded it did not specifically refer to report card grades or cumulative grades.

“That phrase is not in the statute,” Anderson said repeatedly.

Strictly from a policy perspective, I can see both sides on this. I don’t have a firm opinion one way or the other as to which is preferable. But based on what was reported here, it does sound like Commissioner Scott overreached. The Trib has more.

No race to the top

By now you’ve probably heard the news that Governor Perry has directed the Texas to not compete for “Race to the Top” stimulus funds.

Gov. Rick Perry said today that Texas will not compete for up to $700 million in federal grant funding for schools.

His decision to snub the Race to the Top grant competition defied pleas from several Houston-area school leaders who said their districts could use the money. But Perry, joined by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott, said the money was not worth the federal mandates.

Texas, Perry said, “reserves the right to decide how we educate our children and not surrender that control to the federal bureaucracy.”

Phillip boils it down:

  1. Texas was eligible for up to $700 million in federal education dollars, if we submitted a “Race to the Top” application
  2. The Texas Education Agency spent between 700-800 hours preparing the application
  3. Perry has refused to send the application, as officials have said the $700 million would be “too little money” — despite the fact that over 200 local school districts have had to raise taxes in order to pay for the structural deficit created by Perry and Dewhurst in 2006
  4. Refusing to send the application nullifies Texas’ ability to compete for other grants

See also State Rep. Garnet Coleman’s letter to Perry about this. The Trib adds on.

State applications are due next week (Jan. 19), and the agency has been preparing the lengthy document for several weeks.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer money that so much time was put into this application,” said Kirsten Gray, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. TEA confirmed that the agency has spent significant time on the application, and Gray says the application has already been put together.

“There’s just absolutely no excusable reason to not allow Texas to compete for this money,” she said.

Others agree.

“Every reason that I’ve heard so far to turn down the money makes no sense,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who chairs the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Education.

Hochberg argues Perry’s decision was not motivated by policy.

“I think it’s all about politics because it makes absolutely no sense to not even apply for a significant amount of money that can be used to help our schools,” he explained.

[…]

Hochberg says the funds could have a significant impact if the state used them the right way.

After all, he said, per year the potential grant money is “roughly the total that we added to school funding in the last biennium that everyone is bragging about.”

It must be noted that the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers also opposed the Race to the Top funds. A letter from their Chair Linda Bridges to Perry and others is beneath the fold. Their objections are similar to those of the HFT regarding the teacher evaluation proposal – specifically, they object to things like more standardized tests. Perry’s objection is all about politics and the primary, as just about everything else he does is. He’s predictable, I’ll give him that much.

(more…)

As goes Cy-Fair, so goes Texas

Earlier this month, I noted that the Cy-Fair ISD was considering the repeal of an optional homestead exemption so it could pay for salaries and services it needed for the schools. They backed off after residents protested, choosing instead of lay off 75 employees. Cy-Fair isn’t the only district that allows this optional exemption, and it’s not the only one that is now trying to do away with it to meet its budgetary needs.

The local-option homestead exemption — as high as 20 percent of the residential property value on top of the standard $15,000 homestead allowance — was granted in more than 200 school districts during more prosperous times.

Districts can recoup half the amount of the extra exemption from the state, but only if the state has enough money left over after paying its other school-finance obligations. Some years they get nothing.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott told the districts last month that the state may not be able to afford future refunds.

“School districts should not expect automatic continued adjustment and should plan accordingly,” Scott wrote in a letter to the districts. “There is no certainty that a surplus of appropriations will exist in future years, and even less likelihood in the first year of a state fiscal biennium.”

This is the fruit of our bizarre and shortsighted obsession with tax cutting. We demand refunds in good times and we refuse to give back in bad times, and all the while the services we need wither and decay. I keep wondering at what point we’ll figure out that we can’t get something for nothing, and that if we really do want things like good schools and roads and hospitals and whatnot we need to pay for them.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based nonprofit which advocates for needy Texans, opposes the optional homestead exemption. The group says the exemption’s benefit is concentrated in the highest income levels, with more than 43 percent of the benefit going to the 20 percent of households whose annual income exceeds $117,899.

“The regular homestead exemption of $15,000 gives a bigger exemption to those households that need it most,” said Dick Lavine, the center’s senior fiscal analyst. “Also, it seems like regional competition. The way this panned out, some areas of the state are getting a little more than others.”

Lavine said it also costs the state; this year the value lost to the exemption is projected at $428.2 million, according to the state comptroller’s office.

That’s part of the problem with basing your tax structure on something like property taxes. The Express News, which documented how the lion’s share of lower home appraisals via tax protests went to the wealthiest homeowners, demonstrates another flaw. The system we have serves a few people very well, and the rest of us not nearly so well. Simply restoring some balance would solve an awful lot of problems, but needless to say that’s much easier said than done.