TCTA’s testimony before the Texas Senate Education Committee April 14, 2014, focused on benchmark testing violations, accountability rating labels and reducing testing. TCTA was invited to testify before the House Bill (HB) 5 implementation panel to provide input that would assist the committee as it works on several of its interim charges:

  • reviewing the redesign of the high school English end-of-course exams
  • reviewing the accommodations available to eligible students as a result of the elimination of the STAAR-Modified assessment due to changes in federal regulations 
  • reviewing the redesign of the STAAR-Alternate assessment
  • monitoring the implementation of HB 5, relating to public school accountability, including assessment and curriculum requirements

Benchmark testing violations

Holly Eaton, TCTA director of professional development and advocacy, informed the committee that some school districts are finding ways to circumvent HB 5, which prohibits districts from administering more than two benchmark tests per tested subject area each year.

She reported to the senators that some districts have simply renamed the benchmark tests and others have added additional benchmark questions to other tests. On behalf of TCTA, Eaton called on the Senate committee, as she did with a House committee in late March, to direct TEA to issue guidance that informs districts of the legislative intent on this matter.

Accountability rating labels

TCTA’s testimony also highlighted downsides of Texas moving to an A-F labeling system for its public school accountability system, a change required by HB 5.

Per the new law, beginning with the 2016-17 school year, the commissioner of education must assign each Texas school 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.

Eaton testified that returning to a rating approach based on the premise that a school’s performance can be reduced to a single word or letter grade is a mismatch with the simultaneous move to a more complex index accountability approach designed to provide a more accurate and holistic picture of school performance.

Additionally, she reported that other states and districts using the A-F system have found it problematic. For example, the Center for New York City Affairs issued a report that said the A-F grading system in New York City is “deeply flawed” and “doesn’t accurately reflect each school’s strength’s and weaknesses.”

Eaton advocated that the state maintain the pass-fail model that TEA is currently using pending implementation of the new A-F labeling system.

“Coupled with distinction designations awarded by the commissioner as well as the Community and Student Engagement component awarded by districts, this kind of system allows the state to identify struggling schools,” Eaton said, “without falling victim to the problems that a five-label letter grading system has with its series of cut points in which there could very well be less difference between a high B and a low A than there is between a low A and a high A.”

Reducing testing

Eaton commended HB 5’s reduction in testing at the high school level, and encouraged the Senate committee to scale back the number of tests at the elementary and middle school levels as well.

She pointed out that Texas exceeds the number of tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and advocated for the elimination of the fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests as well as the eighth-grade social studies test. She said that the state could cut these tests and still be compliant with NCLB.

“Contrary to the faulty notion that what doesn’t get tested doesn’t get taught, we believe that resulting reduction in the overall number of tests in grades 3-8 will actually allow teachers teaching reading at all these grade levels to have more time to cover more aspects of writing,” Eaton said of the elimination of the writing tests.