This blog on Texas education contains posts on accountability, testing, college readiness, dropouts, bilingual education, immigration, school finance, race, class, and gender issues with additional focus at the national level.
Dineen Majcher, whose 15-year-old daughter Elly Smith is in the first class to be subject to the state’s tougher new testing system, helped launch a parent group from Anderson High School last year that now has active members across the state. The parents’ calls for changes could tip the political balance in the Legislature next year.
Barely a peep of dissent was uttered in 2009 when the Texas Legislature adopted what state leaders called a landmark overhaul of the public school testing and accountability system.
Not even four years later, legislators are hearing loud and clear that the state needs to rethink that high-stakes testing system, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR.
Potential changes that not so long ago would have been dead on arrival are now open for discussion because of evolving political dynamics in the Capitol and some alarming results from the first round of tests.
State Sen. Florence Shapiro, the powerful committee chairwoman who championed the 2009 law, is retiring. After Tuesday’s election, about half of the House members will have been elected after that much-ballyhooed 2009 vote.
And newly engaged — and politically astute — groups of parents and businesses will be calling for fundamental changes. On the agenda are proposals that range from tweaking the law to a full overhaul.
“If they need to see 500 angry moms, we can make that happen,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped launch the parent group, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment.
In Capitol circles, the group is sometimes referred to as Mothers Against Drunk Testing — a wink to another group of women that aimed to upend the status quo, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“I kind of take that as a badge of honor,” said Majcher, noting the success of MADD in pushing tough limits on drinking and driving and mandatory seat belt laws.
To Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, the concerned parents are being needlessly frightened by school superintendents who are failing to prepare their students.
The parents have been told, Hammond said, that some of the provisions of the system “will make it harder for their son or daughter to get into a flagship (university) and that simply is not true.”
“This has never been about those kids. It’s about those kids who have never been given the opportunity to go beyond high school,” Hammond said.
Hammond, who has strong ties to Gov. Rick Perry, has long been the primary business voice in the Texas Capitol when it comes to education issues along with Sandy Kress, one of the architects of the federal No Child Left Behind Act under President George W. Bush. Kress is now a lobbyist for Pearson Education, which creates the state’s tests under a five-year, $468 million contract.
But other business voices are for the first time joining the fray and challenging Hammond in the education policy arena.
Debate employer needs
Hector Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council, said a growing coalition of trade groups in the state is getting involved in education policy because students aren’t coming out of public schools prepared to do the skilled labor needed in Texas industries.
“We’re finding that our education policy is part of the the problem,” said Rivero, whose group represents 70 companies with about 200 chemical manufacturing facilities in the state.
He said the graduation requirements and testing system don’t allow enough flexibility to accommodate all the career and technical courses that could truly prepare students for well-paying jobs that are available as welders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other professions.
Since 1984 when Ross Perot instigated a massive education overhaul, the opportunities for career and technical training in high school have diminished. Despite the state’s “college- and career-readiness standards” that drive today’s system, the focus of Texas schools has been more college and less career, Rivero said.
Hammond has “not been representative of business,” Rivero said. “He is dead wrong on education policy. Particularly, his focus on accountability is misaligned with where the jobs are.”
To Hammond, preparing students for college and the 21st century work force are effectively the same because two-thirds of today’s jobs require some training after high school. And yet, 42 percent of the students entering Austin Community College last year weren’t prepared and needed to take remedial classes.
And Hammond asserts that students have plenty of flexibility with their electives to take career and technical courses.
Critics say the current graduation plan — which requires four years of math, science, English and social studies as well as 15 end-of-course exams — is too rigid and doesn’t permit, for example, substituting a geometry course designed for construction workers for a standard math class. Rivero said students not headed for college need to see some relevance in their schooling or else they will drop out.
In the first round of end-of-course testing, 47 percent of the Class of 2015 — last year’s ninth-graders — failed at least one of the required exams, meaning that each of those students has already fallen off the graduation track. For many of those students, their electives have been replaced with remedial classes to prepare them for the next retest in December.
The superintendent of suburban Houston’s Humble school district testified recently in the ongoing school finance trial that if the failure rate on the end-of-course exams continues, he will soon have more than 3,000 students taking remedial classes. That is the same size as Humble’s largest 5A high school, the superintendent said.
One of the central questions in that trial is whether the state is providing adequate resources to get students up to the more rigorous standards that are tested in STAAR.
A year ago at Anderson High School’s back-to-school night, failure wasn’t the testing issue that concerned the parents. It was a requirement that the score on each of end-of-course exams count toward 15 percent of the student’s final course grade.
That provision was meant to ensure that students take the tests seriously because the score factors into their grade-point average, which is used to determine class rank. For the students at the top, that rank could decide whether they receive automatic admission to Texas public universities. And students applying outside Texas might also be at a competitive disadvantage since other states don’t include standardized test scores in the GPA.
The parents worried their children were guinea pigs in the state’s testing experiment and their college prospects could be affected as a result.
After talking to other parents that night, Majcher said they all “realized that Texas has made a huge mistake.”
That provision was waived by the Texas Education Agency last spring amid the parent uproar, but it was too late. A movement was afoot.
As the parents started digging, they found other provisions they didn’t like. They questioned the size of the Pearson contract, the validity of the tests and the potential to drive lower-performing students to drop out of school.
Susan Kellner, a former school board president for the Spring Branch district and a leader of the parent group, said frustration about the state’s heavy reliance on testinghad been bubbling under the surface for some time. But it took STAAR with its “ridiculous number of tests” and the 15-percent provision that brought the ire to the surface.
“People are willing to spend the (tax) moneyand the time if they think it is going to answer a really important question or move the line. But it hasn’t,” said Kellner, who lives in the district of newly appointed Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
Patrick said no one is wavering on ensuring rigor and accountability in the system, but lawmakers will look at the STAAR test and make sure it is accomplishing what was intended. Some changes are needed, Patrick said, but he declined to be specific.
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said his big concern is that the testing requirements have become so onerous that students will soon be dropping out in droves. Students need to have the flexibility in schools to find the path that works best for them, he said.
“I want to have a vigorous discussion about how we’re testing and what we’re using that testing for,” said Aycock, who is a leading contender to be the next chairman of the House Public Education Committee.
It was the intent of STAAR to set a high bar for students, Aycock said. Now, lawmakers must determine whether they have set that bar too high or just high enough to spur improvement.
Rod Schroder, superintendent of the Amarillo school district, said the superintendents don’t object to accountability and rigor. But they object to a testing system that doesn’t benefit the students. Schools can’t get the test data to identify specific areas where a student is struggling.
“The current accountability system we have in the state is for the adults, it’s not for the kids,” Schroder said.
STAAR focuses on measuring whether students have learned certain concepts and information. But Schroder said that a system that really prepared students for their future would focus on critical thinking, creativity, innovation, problem solving and communication.
“None of those are measured. It’s assumed that if a kid can pass a test, those things will follow, and that’s not necessarily the case,” Schroder said.
As for the changes that might come next year, the 15 percent provision that spurred the whole parent movement is almost certainly dead at the Legislature, Aycock said.
Other potential solutions being kicked around include reducing the number of required tests; changing the calculations that determine whether a student qualifies for graduation; and allowing career and technology courses to satisfy certain graduation requirements. A lingering question is whether current 10th-graders should get a reprieve.
Hammond has taken a hard-line position that he would oppose any effort to roll back the stringent requirements of STAAR.
State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said the path forward for both sides is a common-sense middle ground.
Hammond and his allies “risk losing everything if they don’t find a common-sense compromise,” said Strama, a member of the House Public Education Committee. “For the anti-testing group, they risk getting nothing … if they can’t get a compromise with the guys on the other side because it’s hard to change the law.”
Hammond agrees that defending the status quo will be a challenge.
“Our task is a difficult one,” he said.
Kellner, however, is less yielding.
“Either Bill Hammond moves or the storm is going to move Bill Hammond,” Kellner said.