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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.

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?

House to study Harvey-related issues

Good to see.

Rep. Joe Straus

House Speaker Joe Straus is asking three House committees to wade into issues related to Hurricane Harvey, including how the state can maximize federal funds and whether to rethink how to grade schools affected by the storm this year.

Straus issued five interim charges Thursday, focused largely on education issues, like the scope of damage to schools and figuring out how to help districts absorbing students displaced by Harvey. He also wants lawmakers to look at student testing and accountability to “prevent unintended punitive consequences to both students and districts.”


Straus’ other charges include taking a close look at the state’s infrastructure and use of state and federal funds during storm recovery and review the role of regional entities to developing flood control projects.

“Hurricane Harvey has devastated our state and upended the lives of millions of Texans,” said Straus said in a letter to House members asking for further suggestions of issues lawmakers should study leading up to the next legislative session that begins in January of 2019. “The importance of getting these issues right when we meet again demands that we start working on them now.”

As we know, the TEA isn’t inclined to cut school districts any slack at this time, so it’s nice for the Lege to look at that. I’ll be very interested to see what they come up with regarding infrastructure. As noted before, we authorized a fund for building reservoirs and the like. What are we doing with that, and can we use it for flood mitigation instead of drought mitigation? This seems like as good a time as any to find out. The Trib has more.

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.

What will this school year be like?

School has finally started for most of HISD and many surrounding districts, but with the devastation and disruption of Harvey, what can we expect from this academic year?

Many students in Houston ISD lost everything – their homes, their school supplies, their clothes, their toys.

Some are staying in the mega-shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Park. Others were flown by military helicopter to Dallas and San Antonio, where they have already started school. Still more are shaken after being plucked from their flooded homes by boats and Humvees.

With more than 600,000 Houston-area students set to return to the classroom Monday, teachers and school officials wonder how many will show up – and if they’ll be ready to learn.

And at some schools, business as usual will be a distant memory.

“It’s hard to focus on the lesson of the day when you’re worried about, ‘How is my home? How is my family?” said Ezemenari Obasi, associate dean for research in the University of Houston’s College of Education. “Those questions and worries become more salient than the lesson plan at school.”


While school can help provide some sense of normalcy, Obasi said paying attention to lessons and regurgitating a year’s worth of knowledge during hours-long standardized tests could prove much more difficult for flood-affected students.

He said the brain’s ability to focus can be severely hampered after experiencing significant anxiety, especially for children and teens’ whose brains are still developing.

“It’s really difficult to assess a person’s capacity when they’re not 100 percent available to focus and attempt the task,” Obasi said. “Many things we measure in schools involve students having to focus. They have to have good spatial processing or cognitive abilities, and if you can’t focus, it’s going to be extremely difficult to do anything, let alone ace an important standardized test.”

Obasi said stress can cause a host of physical and mental ailments, from sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate in the short-term to addiction and diabetes in the long-term.

Exhaustion is a real concern, Obasi said, as many have issues falling asleep and staying asleep during times of significant stress. On top of that, anxiety can hamper the brain’s ability each morning to release cortisol, a hormone that helps people get out of bed and going, making such tasks exponentially more tiresome for students.

Then there are the constant distractions – random triggers that will remind students of the worst days of their lives, questions about where their family will live, uncertainty about where their next meal will come from.

There are so many challenges facing HISD this year, from schools that aren’t ready to open and in some cases may never be to teachers who are still dealing with their own damaged houses and cars to students who have been displaced to points unknown. Indeed, quite a few of these students are now homeless, for who knows how long.

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that about 35,000 to 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes, some indefinitely.

Jeanne Stamp, the office’s director, said some families have relocated to Dallas and San Antonio but Houston is sure to see their already large number of homeless children balloon.

Federal protections require schools to immediately enroll children who have lost their regular homes, including those affected by a natural disaster.

That federal law allows homeless children to either stay in the school they were attending or enroll in the school in the neighborhood where they are currently staying, with transportation costs divided equally between the two districts if there’s a funding dispute.

The Texas “Third Choice” law goes even further, allowing homeless students the choice to enroll in any school district in the state, regardless of their school of origin or the location of the place where they are staying.

But the state law doesn’t require transportation to be provided, something Michael Santos, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, urged schools to offer in order to comply with the over-arching federal law.

“That falls under the obligation to remove barriers for the student attending school,” Santos said. “Transportation is controversial and it’s expensive.”

For Houston, the transportation issue could be even more heightened as many displaced families are likely to have to commute across the sprawling metro area, between where they want to go to school and where they’re stuck sleeping at night.

“Sometimes public bus passes help get kids to school. Sometimes parents have a vehicle but don’t have funds for gas,” Stamp said. “It is a very costly piece of the service but it’s a necessarily piece of the service.”

Hey, you know what one of the ancillary effects of HISD going into recapture was? They lost state funding for transportation. Hell of a time for that to happen, with all these students needing to travel farther to go to school, right? Layered on top of all that is the takeover threat from the TEA if certain campuses don’t show sufficient improvement on the STAAR test. I don’t know how the state can enforce that threat in good conscience this year given the extreme exogenous circumstances HISD must deal with, but as yet there’s been no discussion, let alone decisions, to that effect.

The point is that this was going to be a tough year for HISD no matter what, but before Harvey hit you could see a path to holding off the TEA from doing anything undesirable. It’s a lot harder to see such a path now. And as bad as HISD has it, some others have it worse. This is why some folks are petitioning for a halt to STAAR testing for the ISDs affected by Harvey. I don’t think that will get anywhere, and to be honest I’m not sure that it should. But I do know that the TEA and the Lege need to take a far more measured approach to accountability this year. No one – no student, no school, no district – should be penalized for having to go through all this.

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.

School district to join lawsuit over STAAR test


Ben Becker, the Houston father who helped organize a legal fight over last year’s STAAR exams, has repeatedly challenged superintendents over the last few months to join him in court to fight for their students.

Becker describes his group as a handful of Texas parents up against the state of Texas, backed by a legal team funded through a crowdfunding campaign. In a year when the STAAR exam went so horribly awry, and outraged so many school officials across the state, Becker says, “as parents [we] look around and wonder, where are the school districts?”

On Tuesday night, one school district is set to answer Becker’s call. Administrators in Marlin ISD, a rural district about 30 miles southeast of Waco, will ask the school board to join the lawsuit filed by Becker’s group in May.

“Marlin ISD will be the first to join this lawsuit as party plaintiffs,” Superintendent Michael Seabolt told Waco station KWTX on Friday, “and essentially that makes Marlin, as a school district, ground zero for state testing accountability reform.”

The stakes on last year’s STAAR exams were probably higher for Marlin ISD than any other district in the state. After four years of low ratings from the Texas Education Agency, the district faced possible closure if its students didn’t hit state goals for STAAR scores — and they didn’t.

Seabolt took over the district in July 2015 when Marlin ISD’s situation was already precarious. He and the district’s staff worked furiously to get the schools on track to meet the state’s targets, he told the Observer, so he’s been frustrated to see TEA sidestep the Legislature’s requirements for the test.

Seabolt agrees with the parents’ complaint that TEA flouted a 2015 law that should have shortened the STAAR exams. Records obtained by Becker’s group show that hardly any of the tests were completed in the time frame required by law.

So if TEA goes ahead with plans to take over or close Marlin ISD, Seabolt wondered, “You’re gonna take that action based on illegal test scores?” He drew a comparison to the state’s low target for special education enrollment, which the Houston Chronicle showed this month has deprived thousands of students of services to which they’re entitled.

“Why is it that TEA gets to pick which laws it’ll do and which ones it won’t?” Seabolt asked.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seabolt asks a good question, for which I look forward to hearing the state’s response. And since he brought up the special education issue, I will note that as of yet, neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick has seen fit to comment on the issue. Too busy with other things, I guess. I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually.

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.

AG opposes parents in STAAR lawsuit


The Texas attorney general says parents suing to get the state to toss out student test scores lack standing and should have taken their complaints to the Texas Education Agency rather than a court.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office filed the response in Travis County District Court Monday, denying “each and every allegation” from parents who allege in a lawsuit that the TEA ignored state law that requires standardized tests for elementary and middle schoolers be short enough for students to finish is a specific period of time.

The Texas Education Agency and the attorney general are asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the parents lack standing, failed to exhaust administrative remedies and failed to state a “legally cognizable claim.”

“I am shocked and saddened that the TEA refuses to recognize my right to have a judge listen to my complaint, especially when the agency broke the law and is irreversibly damaging our schools in the process,” said Jennifer Rumsey, a parent and teacher who is one of four plaintiffs.”They have already treated our children and our teachers with great disrespect, and the thought that I should continue to trust them to resolve my issues is insulting.”

See here for the background. The STAAR test had its share of problems this year. It feels to me like the state is trying to downplay and excuse these problems rather than face up to them. I’m rooting for the parents to win this one. The Press has more.

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


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.

Once again to the Supreme Court for school finance

Like deja vu all over again, and again and again and…


The Texas Supreme Court is again faced with determining whether the state’s method of funding public schools is unconstitutional, the latest in a series of school finance challenges stretching back more than 30 years.

In oral arguments Tuesday, lawyers representing the state argued that the current system lives up to constitutional mandates that it provide a “general diffusion of knowledge” to public school students. Attorneys for the more than 600 school districts who sued the state said money cut from public education was never fully restored even as lawmakers instituted tougher standards on students.

“This is a case about who gets to decide and who sets education policy in the state. Our argument is simple: It’s the people’s representatives. It’s the Legislature,” Solicitor General Scott Keller said after the hearing. While the system isn’t perfect, he said, lawmakers rather than the courts should determine the future of school finance.

“The state’s interest here is (to) end this perpetual cycle of litigation,” Keller said.

I would certainly agree that the Lege has it within its power to fix this problem once and for all, or at least for longer than seven years at a time. The fact that we do keep coming back to the courts strongly suggests that they do a lousy job of it. There’s a reason why the conventional wisdom – backed by quite a bit of reality – is that the Lege only really addresses this when the Supreme Court orders them to do so. For a different perspective:

Richard Gray III, representing 443 school districts including Pflugerville and Hutto, said other statistics prove the state education system is falling short of its goals — including that only 38 percent of low-income students and English-language learners capable of earning a passing grade on entry-level college courses.

“I think that screams at you that this system is not doing what it desires to do,” Gray said.

Marisa Bono, representing school districts with high numbers of low-income students, said the state finance system “provides more advantages to students who already live in the most advantaged school districts.”

“Every year, the state delivers tens of thousands of young people into our economy who are wholly unprepared,” Bono said.

Arguing on behalf of large school districts, including Austin, Wallace Jefferson said the Legislature has failed to create a finance system that meets its goal of preparing high school students for college or a career.

“We believe we have proved that the system fails the Constitution because we have done the analytical work that the Legislature has failed to do,” said Jefferson, former chief justice of the court.

One hopes former Justice Jefferson knows how to get through to his erstwhile colleagues. We will get a decision when they’re damn good and ready, which for school finance cases usually means in a few months, so early-ish in 2016. Don’t worry, any special session will be for after the primaries. Trail Blazers and the Observer have more.

Supreme Court to hear school finance appeal

We near the end of the road. This road, anyway.


Shut out by lawmakers in their efforts to overhaul the state’s troubled education funding system, more than 600 school districts are now pinning their hopes for relief on the Texas Supreme Court.

The high court will hear arguments on the volatile issue of school finance Tuesday, once again taking up the question of whether the current funding system is unfair and inadequate.

It will be the seventh time in the last quarter-century that the court has been called on to settle a legal challenge over the way Texas funds the education of millions of children.

Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue last week, filing a brief that urges the justices to reverse the decision of now-retired state District Judge John Dietz of Travis County, who ruled for the districts last year. The governor argued that judges should not second-guess the Legislature’s decisions on education.

“Both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of responsible policymaking, the courts are not the appropriate forum for making decisions about statewide education policy,” Abbott said. “It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”

The Republican governor argued that the Legislature “substantially increased” funding for public schools earlier this year. The plaintiff school districts note that the actual increases amount to about 1 percent a year for the past five years — less than the rate of inflation.

And those small hikes came after lawmakers enacted record funding cuts in 2011 to help offset a massive shortfall in state revenue without raising taxes.

Yeah, about that

Three years later, as the state prepares to argue an appeal before the Texas Supreme Court, a Texas Tribune analysis shows that schools still are grappling with the fallout from the lean budget times even as the Legislature has restored a majority of the cuts.

An examination by the Tribune found:

  • Public school staffing remains lower than it was before the cuts, with at least 3,700 fewer teachers in regular, non-charter districts last school year, according to state data. That’s as student enrollment in those schools grew by more than 220,000.
  • The state still is approving far more waivers allowing elementary schools to exceed a 22-student class size limit established in 1984. Last year, the total number of campuses requesting waivers exceeded 2,100, according to state data; In the five school years leading up to the 2011 budget cuts, it never topped 1,375.
  • Scores on the high-stakes STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exam remain flat — with success rates hovering in the 70th percentile — even though students have now had several years to get used to the more difficult testing regime, implemented in early 2012.
  • Per-student state funding has recovered to pre-2011 levels for some districts, but many still are behind. Under the two-year budget state lawmakers passed this year, lawmakers have restored more than 90 percent of what they cut four years ago, yet nearly 30 percent of school districts will receive less per-student funding from the state than they did before the reductions, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board.

And all that is happening as enrollment continues to grow, largely with kids who are economically disadvantaged, and standards continue to be raised by the Legislature. (Both of those links contain a lot more, so go read them in full.) The state’s response to the lawsuit is basically “hey, money isn’t everything, they should, like, work smarter or something”. Which unfortunately may be good enough for the Supreme Court, but we’ll see. We should have a decision in early 2016, thus allowing any special session (if one is needed) to take place after the primaries. The Rivard Report and Better Texas Blog have more.

HISD’s test scores

Not so good. Needs to be better.

Houston ISD high school students continue to struggle with reading and writing, passing state exams at significantly lower rates than the state average, new results show.

The district’s scores in algebra, biology and U.S. history also dipped a couple of points from last year, at a slightly sharper rate than did others across Texas.

HISD’s high school results are similar to the previously released elementary and middle school scores, which mostly declined or remained flat.

Superintendent Terry Grier, in a statement issued Friday, applauded a more promising measure: an increase in the percentage of students who answered more questions correctly this year than last on the high school exams – meeting the tougher bar that the state plans to enforce in coming years.

That uptick, Grier said, “shows that our teachers and administrators are committed to making sure students are on track to graduate.”


On the English I [STAAR] test, which covers reading and writing, HISD’s passing rate was 58 percent this year, compared with the state’s 71 percent. HISD had a three-point drop from 2014, while students statewide declined by one point.

HISD’s passing rate on the algebra test, which some eighth-graders take, was 79 percent, down from 82 percent last year. The state rate dropped one point to 85 percent.

The passing rates include only students taking the exams for the first time in spring 2015 and spring 2014. Students who failed can retake the tests.

HISD scored between one and five points lower than Dallas ISD in algebra, biology and U.S. history this year. The districts’ passing rates were the same for English I, and HISD fared better by one point in English II.

Dallas ISD is the state’s second-largest district behind HISD. Both serve significant concentrations of low-income students and those still learning English, who traditionally lag academically.

Across Texas, scores have been relatively flat since the 2012 rollout of the STAAR, which was designed to be tougher than the old testing regime.

It’s a tough problem, and it won’t get any easier with the forthcoming toughening of standards in the STAAR test. I’m sure this subject will be discussed at length in Terry Grier’s final contract year. Really, though, we need to deal with this at the state level. We can toughen standards, we can change the grading system for schools and school districts, we can come up with all kinds of plans for how to deal with failing schools and school districts, but when are we going to give them the tools and resources they need to not fail in the first place?

Lawsuit filed over teacher evaluation system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No testing waiver

Sorry, kids.

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

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

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

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

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

The new accountability standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To view the 2013 state accountability ratings for districts, charters and campuses, visit the Texas Education Agency web site at

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

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD campus results for each of the four indexes were:

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

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

Don’t count on that federal testing waiver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Testing waiver sought

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

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

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


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

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

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

Perry signs HB5, adds transportation to the special session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushing for the Governor to sign HB5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does the school finance lawsuit stand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Testing and charter bills pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

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


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

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

HB 5

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

SB 2

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

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

Fewer tests in the future

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Senate passes amended HB5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More test tweaking

Seems reasonable.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

School stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Allow me to respectfully disagree,” Williams countered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements

This is a big deal.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Harold Dutton knows what he makes of it.

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

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

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

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

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

The Observer tracked the amendments that were proposed for HB5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What vocational education is like now

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much testing is too much?

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

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

Texas students previously had to pass four exams to graduate.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Here come the STAAR reform bills

Fire one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire two:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

More STAAR changes proposed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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