News Roundup

While we not-so-patiently wait for HB 5 to hit the Senate floor – slated to happen soon, as it was placed on the calendars this afternoon – let’s catch up on the commentary.

Morgan Smith’s Sunday piece in the Texas Tribune narrowed in on a specific part of the conversation happening at the Capitol – the sometimes hostile criticism of Pearson, the testing company with a nearly half BILLION dollar contract to manage Texas public school testing through 2015. Smith quoted former Rep. Scott Hochberg, who encouraged legislators to look within for who’s to blame. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, interestingly, stepped right up and wrote the first comment on the article:

Yes, we all voted for the conference report that created this situation.
Yes, we were poorly informed on the vote.
The only thing more troubling than making a bad decision is refusing to correct it once you know it was bad. Last session the house tried repeatedly to correct the problem (HB500). The Senate blocked the correction. This session both Senator Patrick and I are again working hard to correct the disaster that awaits the present 10th graders and the classes behind them. Our problem is that some folks still deny there is a problem. Our “one size fits all” approach combined with the crazy testing must face a realistic correction. 
Respectfully,
Jimmie Don Aycock
Chair, House Public Ed.

Whether you agree with him or not, I must say, it’s pretty dang refreshing to hear a lawmaker admit they made a mistake.

The Texas Monthly trumped my history posts with a thoroughly researched and excellent investigative piece on how we’ve come so far in the last 10 years – from the state out front, charging forward on accountability, to now making the biggest and most publicized retreat. It’s long, but a worthy read. Check it out.

Finally, a little more news from today in education. At the hearing we observed, Sen. Patrick noted that he was pulling the provision for grading schools on an A-F rating scalelike Florida does, so schools are more easily recognized for their level of achievement and to encourage them to do better by all of their students, not just a select few. Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced today that TEA is moving forward without legislative action to implement an A-F system. Potentially an interesting development, though the ratings are still as of now based just on STAAR test scores. More on this development here.

Signing off for now – hopefully to return with an update on HB 5 in the next few days…

HB 5 on the move in the Senate

After passing the House in late March, House Bill 5 has continued to move through the legislative process. As we reported, on Tuesday the bill was voted out of the Senate Education Committee and moved to the House floor for debate. Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune reported on the developments, appropriately calling House Bill 5 “one of the most controversial education bills” of the session. Check out the Texas Trib’s full coverage here and here.

Today I got wind that Senator Dan Patrick posted an interesting (and ahem, a bit heated) comment on his Facebook page, detailing all of the “misinformation” being spread about HB 5. His tone echoes the passion with which he spoke at the Committee hearing, highlighting the recurring issues of rigor and the tension between standards and reasonable levels of accountability. His closing quote:

“We are not reducing rigor in our graduation pathways and we are not reducing accountability by reducing the number of STAAR tests. We are correcting the error of creating 15 STAAR tests several years ago and we are creating more flexibility for students in high school so they can graduate ready for college and career.”

You can check out his full post for yourself here.

Also, this article hints that Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst may be working against their own party members on this bill. It’s an interesting fight down in Austin, folks….

Close up of the HB5 action in the Senate

After a grueling experience attempting to watch the floor take action on House Bill 5, Jessica and I decided to observe a the Senate Education Committee in hopes of a more focused, meaty discussion. To some degree, we got our wish.

Though procedurally it was at times hard to tell what was going on, a few things were clear. Senator Dan Patrick is passionate on this topic, as is Senator Leticia Van De Putte, and the debate is nothing if not heated.

The hearing began with a fiery introduction from Senator Dan Patrick.

He spoke candidly about his feelings about the bill, vigorously defends rigor of high school standards as laid out in HB 5 and the similar bills in the Senate, SB 1724 and SB 3. He openly bashed the testing companies – not naming Pearson directly, but hinting at his distaste for them and their focus on creating as many exams as possible and scoring them as cheaply as possible.* Senator Patrick also ripped into the buzz around the issue in the national press, at one point saying, “Since when does Texas listen to what the New York Times has to say?”

After his introduction, Senator Van De Putte spoke on her feelings on the need for continued rigor in order to prevent “some children” (in my opinion a clear hint at minority students) from not getting what they need to attend four-year colleges.

Senator Patrick then introduced several changes to the bill under the committee substitute in rapid-fire. While I can’t say I caught or understood them all, its clear that what was happening was that the favored parts of SB3 and SB 1724 were being combined with the favored parts of HB5. Two interesting tidbits – the inclusion of a provision limiting the inclusion of testing company representatives on advisory committees and the limiting of their funding for Board of Education members and a provision that the state should pay for SAT or ACT testing (up to districts to determine which one) for all children.

Senator Van De Putte then advocated for her amendment calling for a single diploma with a requirement for four years of math, science, and English and three years of social studies – but with flexibility, so students who may be on a more vocational track can, for example, take a robotics class or study HVAC engineering, and still meet the requirements to get a full diploma. She indicated that she still supports some type of “opt-over” option for students who want to take what we now call the “minimum plan” – but would ask for a parent meeting akin to an ARD in order to authorize that choice.

Several other amendments were introduced, including one that addressed a technical error and one that emphasized that testing should be executed with the minimum burden on districts in terms of security.

After that testimony began, starting with Bill Hammond from the Texas Association of Business. Hammond stated his opposition to the original bill but indicated his support (tentatively) for the proposed amendments to limit assessment while keeping rigor.

Though we weren’t able to stay to observe all of the testimony or the vote (which wound up sending SB 5 out of Committee without Senator Van De Putte’s support) it’s surprising to note that when you take out the specifics and look at the intent, there is actually a lot of similarity in the final outcome people want – a more reasonable testing schedule with better high school options for kids. The debates are arising over how to get there, and how to ensure that ALL kids are getting a shot at a high school education that’ll prepare them for the world.

We’re still waiting to see how HB 5 makes it through a Senate floor debate. That should be happening any day now, and we’ll be back with a report.

FYI: Check out the Austin American Statesman‘s review of the Committee hearing and vote here.

* Perhaps this is one of the reasons the testing companies are wearing out their welcome?

Breaking news from the lege

pecan pieDon’t worry folks, Erin and I have been watching the legislature like hawks so we were able to catch the passing of this important resolution:

Texas House of Representatives formally names pecan pie the official state pie in a ceremonial resolution sponsored by first-year Rep. Marsha Farney, a Republican from Georgetown, north of Austin.

Glad we’re taking care of the important things and glad we’ve got our priorities straight when it comes to coverage. The Houston Chronicle covers three events in last Thursday’s Legislative Notebook. Guess which one got top priority?

Reasonable testing AND high standards: can’t we have both?

Last week, I embarked on a brief history of accountability in Texas. Before we return to finish that history lesson, it’s time to talk about what’s happening right now in Texas.

In the last week, we’ve seen considerable development that leaves Jessica and me even more frightened about the direction Texas schools are headed. House Bill 5 passed the House this week, reducing the number of tests required for students from 15 to 5. That’s something we support in theory. But upon closer investigation, HB 5 also reduces graduation requirements and appears to lower standards across the board.

One step forward, two steps back? Depends on who you ask.

Education reporter Bill McKenzie of the Dallas Morning News fears we’re dumbing down graduation requirements and crippling kids’ chances at a meaningful high school diploma. He has a point. Though I believe (see last week’s post) that McKenzie buys too easily into the idea that Texas’ march toward accountability has resulted in a better education for children, his fear is not unfounded.

Advocates who point out much of what we were shocked to learn – how much Texas spends on testing and how we test more than any other state, by nearly double – cheered the introduction of HB 5 and the other bills like it. They point to much of what I discussed last weektests alone aren’t credible evidence that we’re making gains for students.

Legislators in favor of the bill laud the changes as providing more flexibility. Currently, all students must take 4 years of high school math, science, English, and social studies – or get a parent’s signature to waive that requirement. This bill opens up different tracks, including a more limited diploma that doesn’t require even Algebra II. Proponents say that is more realistic for some students, and that providing all students with options will help them graduate more ready for their chosen career path, even if that doesn’t involve a 4-year degree.

Detractors – such as Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business, and education advocates including the Education Trust and La Raza – argue that this bill is doing a disservice to students, especially low income and minority students. Hammond argues that “parents are being sold a bill of goods by the groups that supposedly represent their interests” without realizing they’re signing up for a reduction in standards that could hurt their students.

So what to make of all of this? 

As Washington Monthly‘s Daniel Luzer points out, “just because the state has high standards doesn’t mean the standards are good.” Are they the right standards? Are we pushing kids to learn higher level skills, or coaching them to pass a test that supposedly tells us they’ve learned those skills?

The part of me that cheered for fewer tests has been replaced with one that wishes we were asking different questions. Like, what do our kids really need to learn? What is the purpose of an education? Is it to learn skills? To be job-ready? Or to learn what it means to be educated? To learn to think and question?

In the end, I for one would fight for higher, smarter standards AND fewer, smarter standardized tests. Can’t we have both?*

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*It’s worth noting that Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) tried to push for a compromise that would keep standards as they are but still reduce the number of tests. His word on reducing graduation standards? “Some kids are capable of more than they may believe they’re capable of if we believe in them. And I just wish that we would presume they’re capable of it and default them into the highest path possible, and let them opt out if they choose to with their family support.” His amendment was struck down.

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PS. There’s no shortage of conversation on this topic. If the links above weren’t enough, check out more commentary from KUT News, Bill McKenzie, and the Texas Tribune.

Man Your Battle Stations: HB 5 Vote TODAY!

Word on the street: Texas House of Representatives will debate and vote TODAY on HB 5

HB 5 is, according to many, a long overdue response to mounting opposition from both parents and educators condemning the current testing regime in Texas. In short, HB 5 seeks to:

  • Reduce the number of end of course exams from 15 (more than twice any other state) to 5
  • Change requirements for graduation to endorse a wider variety of subjects and “pathways” to the future
  • Implement a new accountability system that evaluates schools on more than just their standardized test scores. Imagine recognizing community and student engagement as important measures of success!?

As reported by the Texas Tribune, HB 5 will be up today for what is likely to be a long, controversial debate between those who oppose Texas’ agressive high-stakes testing and those who believe these changes might risk reducing standards and reversing gains that some (including education reform organization The Education Trust and La Raza United) perceive as being made for low-income students.

As the Daily Texan is careful to point out, reducing the number of standardized tests does not fix the underlying issues of budget cuts, massive teacher layoffs and actual classroom instruction BUT many believe it represents an important step towards salvaging the sinking ship that is Texas public education.

Interested in adding your voice to the conversation? Go HERE for the name and number of your state representative.

Click HERE for a more detailed summary of what HB 5 proposes to accomplish and STAY TUNED for more on the ongoing debate over the removal of the 4X4 graduation plan.

Accountability in Texas, Part 1: Hardly a Miracle

I began this post looking to write a short history of testing in Texas public schools, in broad strokes.  As someone who used to work in public education policy, I was already jaded about testing. I expected to find that it didn’t measure much, that it wasted valuable classroom time, and that it was being skewed in importance.

Turns out that is just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t think it was possible, but I’m more jaded about testing than I was when I started.

As early as 1979, Texas began tying state tests (then the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills or TABS) to the curriculum taught in classrooms. In 1983, 9th graders became subject to a requirement that they keep retaking TABS every year until they pass. In addition, test results for each school and district became public information. These moves put pressure on schools to help students pass these standardized tests, and thus began an era of high-stakes testing that has only gained momentum.

In 1984, the nature of testing shifted to measure “minimum” skills rather than so-called “basic competencies”. Sanctions for students were added – passing the new TEAMS (Texas Education Assessment of Minimum Skills) became required for high school graduation. Yet another shift in 1990 to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) intended to use testing to measure problem-solving and critical-thinking skills rather than just “minimum” skills, and purported to increase the rigor of the tests.

When TAAS results started getting attention in the late 1990s, the buzz about the “Texas Miracle” began gathering steam.

Based on the results of TAAS tests, Texas appeared to be making great strides in increasing student achievement and reducing dropouts. Racial gaps appeared to have narrowed. Then-Governor Bush touted the results in his run for President and buzz ensued across the country.

How were they doing it? It turned out, according sources ranging from CBS’ 60 Minutes to academics and education advocates, to be not a miracle but a gross misrepresentation of the truth and a flawed test.

Dropouts in Houston were falsely reported has having obtained GEDs – keeping dropout rates (on paper) low.

Students with lower grades (mostly Black and Latino) were prevented from taking the test by being held back as freshmen, thus avoiding the 10th grade TAAS test. According to academic Walt Haney: By the late 1990s, nearly 30% of Black and Hispanic students were “failing” grade 9 and required to repeat that grade.”

The number of students excluded from testing based on Special Education waivers steadily increased – another way of cutting out students whose scores might drag down test averages.

All of this on top of a test whose cut scores were “arbitrary” and whose scoring was likened to “creative accounting” by the Texas Observer. And as for student gains – they simply didn’t measure up when compared to Texas’ student’s scores on SATs and national tests (like NAEP).

In short – the miracle was no such thing. 

Check out this damning report for more detail, including teacher testimony about teaching to the test and how districts felt forced to game the system.

Next up: TAKS, the transition to STAAR and the backlash against testing – led by an unexpected source. Plus, info on the bills currently in the legislature that aim to change how accountability in Texas works. 

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Sources:

Bernstein, J. (August 30, 2002). Test Case: Hard Lessons from the TAAS. The Texas Observer. Retrieved from: http://www.texasobserver.org/1004-test-case-hard-lessons-from-the-taas

Cruse, K. L. and Twing, J. S. (2000). The History of Statewide Achievement Testing in Texas. Applied Measurement in Education, 13(4), 327-331. doi: 10.1207/S15324818AME1304_02

Haney, W. (2000). The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(41). Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/432/828

Leung, R. (February 11, 2009). The ‘Texas Miracle’. CBS News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500164_162-591676.html