Seeds of change:
House Bill 5 laid the groundwork for greater change in testing and accountability in Texas

The Classroom Teacher, summer 2013

Long before the 83rd legislative session even began in January 2013, lawmakers — to employ a good, old Texas colloquialism — were “chomping at the bit” to reduce student testing in the state. The momentum had built for some time, with 86 percent of Texas school district boards — along with other groups, including TCTA — supporting an anti-high-stakes testing resolution.

Although TCTA and educators had been advocating for a reduction in testing for years, a grassroots network of parents concerned about the ramifications of their children having to achieve a certain score on 15 high school end-of-course exams in order to graduate also joined the fray this session. In addition, various business and industry groups were calling for change in the current high school graduation programs’ rigidity and college focus. They were asking for more flexibility and pathways that students could choose.

Interwoven with discussions on testing and high school graduation were deliberations on the state accountability system. The issue drawing the most attention was whether to use A-F rating labels for districts and schools, an idea borrowed from Florida. Another equally or more important issue, as TCTA consistently pointed out, was the need to reduce the emphasis on testing in the state accountability system.

With the combined voices of parents, business and industry, and educators calling for an overhaul of the state testing system, the usual defenders of the current system, including the Texas Association of Business and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, were in a weak position to hold the line. Ultimately, a good number of legislators filed legislation related to one or more of these issues, but it was widely understood that House Bill 5, the bill filed by the House Public Education Committee chair, would be the designated vehicle for addressing them.

Student testing

Gov. Rick Perry signed HB 5 into law June 10, 2013, at a ceremony to which TCTA representatives were invited. The bill is a step toward scaling back the state’s high-stakes testing system in that it cuts the number of required EOC exams to graduate from 15 to five. (TEA released details on how the transition will affect current students.)

Even though a significant amount of time in both chambers was devoted to vetting variations on the theme of coursework required for graduation and the best way to reduce the emphasis on testing in the accountability system, to the very end of the session, the main sticking point was whether to require high school students to pass the Algebra II EOC to graduate.

Neither chamber was willing to make that a requirement for graduation, opting to require passage of ELA I (reading and writing assessed together, producing a single score), ELA II (again, together with a single score), Algebra I, biology and U.S. history in order to graduate. This resulted in the reduction to five tests.

However, in deference to pressure from certain members of the leadership, HB 5 does include provisions that allow districts to administer the Algebra II and English III EOCs at their discretion to assess postsecondary readiness.

But the bill also prohibits districts from administering benchmark tests for these EOCs and from using the results of these EOCs for district/campus accountability, or for teacher evaluations, determining students’ final course grade or class rank, or by an institution of higher education for admission or determining eligibility for a TEXAS grant.

HB 5 also contains a number of other testing-related provisions that most teachers will appreciate, starting in 2013-14:

  • School districts must adopt policies that limit students’ removal from class for remedial tutoring or test preparation to no more than 10 percent of the school days on which the class is offered, unless the parent gives written consent.
  • The commissioner of education must design test administration procedures such that they minimize disruptions to school operations and classrooms.
  • School districts must not administer more than two district-required benchmark tests in any tested subject (unless a parent of a student with special needs requests more). This does not apply to college preparatory tests, including PSAT, ACT Plan, SAT, ACT, AP, IB or a teacher-prepared classroom test.

TEA must, no later than the 2014-15 school year, redesign the STAAR-Alt tests so that they do not require teachers to prepare tasks or materials for the tests. (TCTA worked closely with the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education on this provision.)

Although TCTA was successful in getting a provision added to the Senate version of HB 5 that said assessments must be used only for purposes for which they have been designed and validated, that provision did not survive the conference committee process and was not included in the final bill.

Possible progress for grades 3-8

Although TCTA and other public education advocates consistently reminded legislators of the need to reduce testing in the lower grades (read more about TCTA's testing bill), it became increasingly clear as the session progressed that the idea did not have as much buy-in as reducing testing at the high school level, especially from some members of the legislative leadership.

This was partly because legislators viewed the need to reduce testing at the high school level as more urgent, given the large numbers of current high school students in danger of not graduating under current testing requirements.

Still, one such bill did pass: HB 866 by Rep. Dan Huberty. However, the final version did not include reductions to testing in social studies and writing that the original bill contained. And because federal law requires annual student testing in reading and math in grades 3-8, implementation of the bill is contingent on receipt of a waiver from federal law which the bill requires the commissioner to expeditiously seek so that it can go into effect no later than the school year starting after Sept. 1, 2015. Given the strained relations between Texas and the U.S. Department of Education in recent years, few expect a waiver to be granted.

However, if a waiver is granted, or if TEA receives notice from the USDE that a waiver is not required:

  • Students whose third-grade scores in either reading and/or math meet a minimum threshold (determined by TEA) would be exempt from one or both of those exams in fourth grade. Students whose fifth-grade scores in either reading and/or math meet the threshold are exempt from the relevant sixth- and seventh-grade exams.
  • All students would continue to be tested on social studies and science in eighth grade, and would have to achieve a minimum satisfactory adjusted scale score on the fifth-grade science test to avoid being tested in science the following year(s).
  • TEA would have to develop new science tests to be administered in sixth and seventh grades to students who fail to meet the performance thresholds in the fifth and sixth grades, respectively.
  • All students would still have to pass the writing tests in the fourth and seventh grades.

HB 2836 by Rep. Bennett Ratliff also attempted to reduce testing in grades 3-8 but was ultimately changed to reinstate all testing; however, the bill contained other beneficial testing provisions worth noting.

It required all state assessment instruments to be determined valid and reliable by a third-party entity. It also required that tests be designed so that 85 percent of students in grades 3-5 could finish in two hours, and 85 percent of students in grades 5-8 could finish in three hours. Additionally, the bill required that no test could take longer than eight hours to administer and that each must be administered within one day.

The bill passed but was vetoed by the governor, who cited concerns about maintaining rigorous standards.

Graduation requirements

The movement to make Texas’ high school graduation programs more flexible was successful. HB 5 provides for the following major changes, beginning in 2014-15:

  • a new foundation graduation program that requires 22 total credits: four in ELA; three each in math, science and social studies; two in a foreign language (computer programming languages fulfill this requirement); one in fine arts; one in PE; and five elective credits
  • endorsements a student can earn in areas such as STEM, business/industry, public services or arts and humanities; most of which will require a fourth credit in math and science (along with meeting other criteria)
  • a distinguished level of performance, which requires four credits each of math (including Algebra II) and science, in addition to an endorsement, which would be necessary to qualify for Top 10 Percent admission to Texas higher education institutions

Accountability

In the midst of the legislative session in late April, Commissioner of Education Michael Williams released final details of the new public school accountability system under which TEA will issue the first ratings in August 2013.

New index system

The final system contains four indices: Student Achievement, Student Progress, Closing Performance Gaps and Postsecondary Readiness. (The measure for all of these is still student performance on state tests, with the addition of graduation rate and percentage of recommended or advanced high school program plan graduates for the fourth index.)

However, HB 5 does include provisions that require student achievement measures to be expanded to include at least three non-test-based indicators, including the percentage of students successfully completing coursework for the distinguished level of achievement under the foundation high school program and for an endorsement, and the number of students who earn dual-credit hours as part of the Foundation high school program or an endorsement.

Additionally, the bill requires the commissioner, in evaluating performance on the student achievement indicators, to give, to the greatest extent possible, consideration to performance on the non-test-based indicators of student achievement.

A-F labels for schools

The commissioner’s April announcement detailing the new accountability system said that schools and districts would receive ratings of “Met Standard,” “Met Alternative Standard” or “Improvement Required” in 2013, and that work would continue on the conversion to an A-F rating system for 2014.

That caused a stir among legislators, who were still discussing whether to use A-F rating labels — an approach that had gained early favor with both Senate and House leaders but that received significant pushback by school superintendents, who objected to a labeling system they considered a crude representation of school quality.

The debate over A-F ratings ended up being settled in an interesting way by provisions included in HB 5. Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, the commissioner must assign each district a performance rating of A, B, C, D or F. An A, B or C rating will reflect acceptable performance; a D or F rating will reflect unacceptable performance.

However, campus ratings will remain as in current law (exemplary, recognized, acceptable or unacceptable). A district cannot receive an A rating if it has any campuses with unacceptable performance ratings.

New locally determined accountability category

HB 5 also adds a new category of accountability to be locally determined. The rating is locally awarded and called “Performance in community and student engagement; compliance.” Each school district will be required to form local committees to develop criteria in each performance area, which will include compliance with state law.

Beginning in 2013-14, using these criteria, each district will evaluate the performance of the district and each campus and assign a rating of exemplary, recognized, acceptable or unacceptable for both overall performance and each individual evaluation factor. Districts must report each rating to TEA and make the ratings publicly available by Aug. 8 of each year.

Performance ratings will be based on the following programs at each campus:

  • fine arts
  • wellness and physical education
  • community and parental involvement, such as:
    • opportunities for parents to assist students in preparing for assessments
    • tutoring programs that support students taking assessments
    • opportunities for students to participate in community service projects
  • the 21st Century Workforce Development program
  • the second language acquisition program
  • the digital learning environment dropout prevention strategies
  • educational programs for gifted and talented students

Performance ratings are also based on the record of the district and each campus regarding compliance with statutory reporting and policy requirements.

The bill requires the commissioner to report the community/student engagement rating and the district financial accountability rating alongside the district and campus academic performance ratings.

TCTA's accountability proposals

Before the legislative session, TCTA offered ideas to TEA, and during the session, TCTA testified before the Legislature about ways to reduce the accountability system’s emphasis on student test scores, suggesting that, in addition to student achievement indicators, ratings should be based on a learning environment index comprised of data regarding teacher out-of-field assignments, teacher turnover and class-size waivers, as well as results from organizational health surveys taken by school employees.

A bill was filed in the Senate incorporating TCTA’s approach, and although there was a fair amount of interest in it, in the end the Legislature shied away from taking that large of a step, preferring instead to lessen the emphasis on testing by expanding the number of student achievement indicators upon which ratings are based beyond student test scores.

See also:

Conflicts of the 2013 legislative session

TCTA reviews key legislators' actions in the 2013 session

What changes to TRS retirement and health insurance resulted from the 2013 Legislature?