Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) was joined by her House Public Education Committee counterpart Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) on Thursday, March 5, in unveiling the long-awaited bill drafts to revise the state’s accountability system.  As pointed out by Shapiro, the low bill numbers indicate the importance of this legislation to the House and Senate leadership.

As a predicate to filing the bills, a Select Committee on Public School Accountability spent the past year holding hearings throughout the state and taking testimony from stakeholders, ranging from parents to school personnel.  TCTA President-Elect Susan Lewis served as a member of the Select Committee and participated in all of the committee hearings.  Still, even with multiple meetings of the Select Committee, there was uncertainty about what provisions the bill would contain.  As Shapiro noted at the press conference announcing the filing, the bill is a "work in progress" and is likely to see revision after reactions are received.

Check out highlights of the new accountability legislation.

Though an early review of the bill indicates that many items discussed by the Select Committee are encompassed, there are also some surprises and some apparent contradictions. 

Not unexpectedly, the bill’s primary goal is to put Texas within the top 10 among states in college readiness within the next 10 years.  However, competition for those top 10 spots will be tough, as states with less socioeconomic diversity than Texas tend to claim  the top spots nationwide, in light of their lesser challenges.

A primary goal for TCTA throughout the discussions of a new accountability system has been to reduce the overemphasis on high-stakes testing.  The bill sends mixed messages on this issue.  Though the Student Success Initiative is modified so that passing the TAKS (or the new assessments that will replace it) in grades 3, 5, and 8 is no longer required to promote students, it was a very badly kept secret that most students who failed to pass the TAKS were promoted anyway, by the grade placement committees. 

The pressure on districts and campuses to generate high test scores and earn those coveted recognized or exemplary ratings will be reduced, by virtue of the elimination of the current ratings system and its replacement by an accredited, accredited-warned, or accredited-probationary ranking for all districts and campuses.  Further, districts and campuses will be allowed to use growth models rather than absolute pass rates in determining their rankings, and to take advantage of a three-year "rolling average" of test scores or current year results, whichever is more favorable.

At this juncture, though, it’s hard to see any relief for teachers at grade levels where state-mandated testing occurs; in fact, the bill even adds a "teacher report card" to be provided to teachers of students in assessed grade levels.  The purpose is unclear; while potentially diagnostic, the report card might also be used to "grade" teachers on their students’ performance.

The authors of the bill were also clear, as the bill reflects, that there would be a ratcheting up of standards over time to achieve the enunciated goal of making the top 10 among states in college readiness.  However, again a mixed message is encountered, as the bill apparently removes the requirement for charter schools to take state-mandated assessments and leaves the determination of what constitutes satisfactory performance of charter schools to the commissioner of education.  Because traditionally charter schools as a group have performed more poorly on state assessments than regular districts and campuses, charter schools could potentially be held to very low standards in order to keep their doors open and state funds flowing.

The incursion of for-profit entities into the public schools is enhanced by a provision allowing for-profit entities to provide alternative management for campuses, rather than closing a campus has been low-performing for two years after reconstitution. 

Among the bill’s strengths are provisions recognizing that workplace readiness has value, and providing course offerings that recognize that value as one of the options to meet graduation requirements.  The recognition of workforce readiness as a worthy goal, as opposed to the assumption that all students are or should be college-bound, is a welcome restatement of our priorities.

Allowing campuses and districts to earn "distinction" in a variety of areas is also noteworthy, giving credit where it is due for outstanding efforts in programs like fine arts or closing the achievement gap.  But granting exemptions from state law for campuses ranked in the top 25 percent for improvement in student achievement (which results in a distinction designation) is of dubious merit; it has always seemed counterintuitive to suggest that very successful campuses should consider doing things differently, via exempting them from practices they had previously been following.

A clear objective of providing data and transparency to the public is also evident throughout the bill, though possibly to the point of serving to drown the message by reporting the same things so often in so many different formats; paperwork for administrators will definitely not be reduced.  We will be suggesting that instead of reiterating the same data (primarily test scores and dropout/completion rate information) in so many different formats, we include some additional data and make better use of some that is already being collected, like the percentage of teachers who are assigned to subjects they are not certified to teach.

Both authors have consistently indicated a willingness to work with the education community and other stakeholders to improve the accountability system and the legislation that creates it.  We look forward to working with them, other members of the education committees, and members of the House and Senate to encourage that the good concepts in this proposal be retained, the bill be pared down to its essence, and the potentially harmful changes be deleted.  We’ll keep you posted as details continue to emerge.