Key education policy discussions are plentiful even when the Texas Legislature’s not in session, and TCTA is always on hand when the issues are being considered - whether it’s at a meeting of a legislative committee, stakeholder group, state panel, TEA or other state agency. To help keep you current on the events that could affect you, your classroom and profession, we provide the following update on recent interim topics, including testing requirements, teacher quality and appraisals, class-size waivers, special education, school finance and charters. These issues will continue to be discussed over the coming months, and many will likely be on the agenda when the Legislature returns in January 2013.

Rethinking the emphasis placed on standardized testing

After a growing backlash from parents, educators and State Board of Education members against the outsized role standardized testing is playing in our state education system and a clarification of  intent from state leaders, Commissioner of Education Robert Scott deferred implementation of the new 15% grading requirement tied to the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) end-of-course (EOC) examinations. While the law still requires students entering the 9th grade in the 2011-12 school year and thereafter to achieve a cumulative score on the EOC exams to complete graduation requirements, the commissioner’s ruling, which applies to the 2011-12 school year only, allows districts to determine whether to include EOC exam scores as part of the final course grade. Districts have dealt with much confusion and agitation as they struggled to determine how best to incorporate the 15% requirement into grades.  

With even the commissioner now calling the testing/accountability system  a“perversion of its original intent,” many are rethinking the emphasis placed on standardized testing. Momentum for revisiting the move toward more rigorous state tests via the STAAR system started in earnest with the advent of the last legislative session. TCTA, along with numerous parents, educators and superintendents, called for a delay in moving forward with STAAR. A major concern was the looming drastic funding cuts to programs like the Student Success Initiative, which had operated in the past as a safety net for students struggling on state tests. However, calls for delay were met with stiff resistance by key Senate leaders and certain business groups, who characterized them as “retreating” from the high standards that would ensure Texas’ ability to compete in a global economy.

Efforts in the House then turned toward making changes in the system to mitigate the impact of STAAR, primarily via House Bill 500 authored by House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler. The bill would have allowed local school districts to decide whether to count EOC exams as 15% of a student’s grade in the corre­sponding course. It would also have modified the scoring require­ments that students would have to meet on the EOC exams in order to graduate, and allowed some of the high school students required to take EOC exams to instead continue to take the TAKS test for a set amount of time.  

Although the bill had near unanimous support in the House, it was dead on arrival in the Senate and failed to pass. Still, the concerns had not diminished and the Speaker of the House issued an interim charge to the House Public Education Committee in October to examine the impact of STAAR on students, instruction, teachers, and graduation or promotion rates. The committee held a hearing on this charge in late January, with much of the testimony centered on  the 15% requirement and how it would impact student GPAs and college admissions. Although it was pointed out during the hearing that districts have total discretion on whether to use course grades incorporating EOC test results in calculating GPAs, committee members were sympathetic to claims of the inequity of holding students, but not schools, accountable for the new test during the transition year.TCTA testified that, despite much attention being focused on smaller issues like the 15% course grade requirement, we hoped the committee wouldn’t lose sight of the overarching, more important issue of whether our state testing system is worth the time, effort and costs it requires. One idea TCTA presented to the committee was to consider scaling back the required tests to no more than those required by federal law.  

Not long after the hearing, key House and Senate members issued letters clarifying that they believed the commissioner had authority to defer the 15% requirement for the first year of EOC exams, and shortly after, the commissioner issued a letter doing just that. Still, TEA is required to continue to move forward with the STAAR system, and has been issuing new rules and convening several new advisory committees to help inform future policies and decisions about STAAR. TCTA is fortunate to be represented on these committees, which include the EOC Policy Committee, the EOC Standard-Setting Committee and the Accountability Policy Advisory Committee.

Test administration and training

Among the new testing rules proposed by TEA was one dealing with test administration and training. The proposed rule incorporated the 2012 Test Security Supplement, which contains, among other things, provisions requiring annual test administration training and encouraging “as many training sessions as possible.” TCTA has long heard concerns from members who have been required to attend annual test administration training for TAKS with substantially the same content year after year. With the advent of the new STAAR testing system, it appears unlikely that the amount of test administration training will be reduced any time soon. 

However, given our members’ concerns about redundant test administration training, TCTA submitted comments to TEA expressing our concerns about incorporating in rule the 2012 Test Security Supplement containing these troublesome provisions. TCTA pointed out that doing so institutionalizes a concept in rule that constrains the possibility that future test administration training could be more closely tailored to the need as STAAR becomes established. For example, experienced test administrators could perhaps undergo abbreviated refresher training after receiving initial comprehensive training, if there are new procedures unique to a given test administration.

In adopting the final rules, TEA responded to TCTA’s comments, stating that “The agency disagrees with striking the reference to required annual training but agrees that the encouragement of additional training is unnecessary. Though required training may increase during the transition to the STAAR program, TEA is aware of district concerns surrounding test administrator training and fully intends to explore ways to reduce training requirements for districts and campuses after the STAAR program is established. The “Training” section of the 2012 Test Security Supplement... was modified at adoption to reflect only annual training.”

TCTA will continue to work with TEA to provide for future training reductions once the STAAR system becomes established, unless there are significant changes from one test administration to the next.

New ELL testing rules

TEA also recently adopted new rules changing testing requirements for English Language Learners (ELLs). One of the changes requires all first-year Limited English Proficient (LEP)-exempt ELL students (i.e., those who have had inadequate schooling outside of the U.S.) to take the standard STAAR reading and writing exams instead of the TELPAS (Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System), which had been allowed instead of TAKS reading and writing. TCTA vigorously protested the changes when proposed, arguing that first-year LEP-exempt ELL students would be hit especially hard, not only by having to take the more rigorous, timed STAAR test, but by having fewer accommodations than are currently available to all other ELL students.

TEA rejected TCTA’s arguments and those of numerous other stakeholders, stating that “testing all students, even students who cannot reasonably be expected to pass, will provide useful information,” and  emphasizing that decisions about how the scores would be included in the state and federal accountability systems would take into account the unique circumstances surrounding these students.

Teacher quality

Although TCTA successfully defeated a bill last session that would have required a significant portion of teacher appraisals to be based on student improvement on standardized tests, the issue of teacher evaluations is ongoing, as evidenced by discussions at a new state-level Texas Teaching Commission, upon which TCTA serves. Established by Educate Texas, a public-private alliance, the commission is charged with developing a set of recommendations and policies at the state and local levels to improve the teaching experience. The commission had its first substantive meeting in January and discussed various identified components of the teacher continuum, including preparing, recruiting, hiring, inducting, developing, evaluating, rewarding and retaining. A February meeting was devoted to discussing teacher evaluation in the context of TEA’s long-term plans for any revisions of the state teacher appraisal system (PDAS).For some time now, the commissioner has indicated an interest in revising the PDAS to include a greater student performance component, as long as the measure used is transparent and not a “black-box” formula.  However, any effort to revise PDAS is likely to be long-term, since there is not enough valid and reliable student testing data from the new STAAR to use for teacher appraisals.  

TCTA is also participating in another state initiative on teacher quality that relates specifically to the effectiveness of educator preparation programs (EPPs). A metric is currently being developed to determine the effect of EPP graduates on student achievement for purposes of EPP accountability. While student test scores on state exams must be included  in the metric, improvement in achievement will not be measured for any individual teacher’s students, but rather for students in the aggregate.

Class-size waivers

Despite many school district superintendents identifying K-4 class-size limits as the chief so-called “unfunded mandate” to be targeted for elimination/modification during the most recent legislative session, no changes were made to statutory class-size limits. TCTA was instrumental in supplying compelling evidence of the ease with which districts have received class-size waivers in the past, showing that in the 25 years that K-4 class-size caps have been in effect, only five waiver requests have ever been denied, while over 3,000 have been granted (in the last 10 years, none have been denied).  TCTA argued that the commissioner already had broad waiver authority, using the criteria of his choosing, to grant waivers to districts needing temporary relief from class-size limits. District administrators countered that the current criteria for class-size waivers didn’t include financial hardship, leading the commissioner to accommodate their concerns by adding financial hardship as an allowable criteria for the 2011-12 school year.

The latest reports show that the number of classrooms operating under a class-size waiver almost quadrupled from 2,238 in 2010-11 to 8,479 in the current year. 

Special education issues

TCTA often hears from our members about the large paperwork burden associated with providing special education services to students. In an effort to reduce this burden, legislators passed SB 1788 last session requiring TEA to develop a simplified model IEP form that school districts can choose to use. SB 1788 requires that the form include only the information required in the federal model form and any information required by state laws and rules that is not required under federal law. The form is now available on the TEA website at tea.state.tx.us.

After attempts over several legislative sessions, TCTA was successful in getting legislation passed last session that offers help to regular education teachers with special education students in their classes. HB 1335 requires districts to provide regular education teachers with special education students a process by which the teacher can request review of the student’s Individualized Education Program as well as receive a timely district response and parental notice of the district response. For years, our members with struggling special education students in their classes have expressed frustration when requests for assistance from the district go unaddressed, causing the students to continue struggling academically. The bill does not dictate what the district response must be, nor what the process should look like, and the design of the process is a matter of local district control.  However, the provisions requiring a district response and parent notice ensure that such requests for assistance will at least be acknowledged and the parents made aware.

Charter schools

The House Public Education Committee has been charged with evaluating charter schools in Texas and other states during the legislative interim, specifically to compare the educational outcomes of charter school students to those in traditional schools, and to identify any best practices and how they might be applied statewide. Texas is ranked third in the nation in charter school enrollment, with more than 22,000 charter school students.  

While charter school exemplary ratings continue to rise (the latest accountability report shows 8.5% of charter operators with an exemplary rating, compared to 4.4% of traditional districts), they are not necessarily an accurate reflection. About 32% of charter schools (compared to roughly 3% of traditional public schools) are under the alternative accountability system, which has a lower standard for ratings.  

The latest and final Texas Center for Educational Research report on charters found significantly lower academic achievement of students in state-created open enrollment charter schools vs. similar students in the traditional public schools. And Michael Marder, co-director of the University of Texas UTeach program, who recently conducted a great deal of research on public education statistics and the role of poverty in educational outcomes, stated that “secondary charter schools in Texas led to much lower levels of student performance than comparable public schools, and across the nation secondary charter schools at best kept up with comparable public schools.”

On the national level, the buzz is around the largest study of charter school performance to date – the CREDO study - which compared charter and traditional public schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. CREDO, the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes is based at Stanford University.The study showed that 17% of charter school students outperformed their traditional public school peers, 37% did worse, and 46% showed no statistical difference. These numbers mean a student has a one-in-five chance of testing better after entering a charter school, but the chances nearly double that the student will perform worse.

Upcoming issues with TRS

The Legislature has directed the Teacher Retirement System to review and report on several areas of potential change prior to the next session, including retirement eligibility, calculation of final average salary, the multiplier, and a hybrid defined benefit/defined contribution plan  (see pages 18-19 for more information). 

Other education issues under review

In October 2011, the Speaker of the House issued interim charges for the House Public Education Committee, and on Feb. 29, 2012, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst released subjects for the Senate Education Committee’s interim studies, which include teacher and principal certification, virtual schools, extended learning time, charter schools, school choice, school discipline, and implementation issues relating to Senate Bill 8 (last session’s “flexibility” legislation). Even though the actual results of interim studies are often ignored once the legislative session begins, the subject matter usually reflects the topics that are considered important by policy leaders. 

Watch for word on the latest

TCTA will continue to be involved in what is turning out to be a very busy interim, and will keep you updated on the latest developments via our eUpdates and website.  If you aren’t receiving our eUpdates, please visit our website at tcta.org and click on the “eUpdates signup” button or call (888) 879-8282.

The financial outlook

The prevailing sentiment seems to be that the next legislative session will be as bad, if not worse, than last session – at least budget-wise. Due to the fact that some districts are experiencing greater cuts, it is imperative to pay attention to budget discussions in your district and participate, if possible. The state ended 2011 with approximately $1.6 billion more in revenue than was predicted, with an increase in state sales tax collections for the past 20+ months due mostly to business spending, oil and gas production and consumer spending. 

The Rainy Day Fund could contain more than $8 billion by the 2013 legislative session, but at least $4.8 billion of that amount will be required for an emergency appropriation to help cover shortages in the Medicaid program, which is estimated to require between $5 billion and $15 billion. 

In February, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus announced the formation of the Joint Interim Committee to Study the Public School Finance System, comprising 11 House and 11 Senate members. Formation of the committee was required in the school finance legislation that passed last June. Most experts believe that lawmakers will wait for a court ruling on the multiple school finance lawsuits before taking action, and a final ruling is not likely to happen in time for the 2013 legislative session.