The Classroom Teacher, summer 2015

Nearly 100 education-related bills passed in the 2015 session – here are a few worth paying special attention to. For bill summaries of all the bills that passed, go to tcta.org/politics_government/bill_summaries.

In effect now

Decriminalizing truancy

HB 2398 eliminates criminal penalties for truancy, and instead requires interventions for truant students that could include behavior modification plans, school-based community service, counseling, mediation, mentoring, a teen court program, or community-based services. If such programs do not address behavior, a school administrator can refer the student to a truancy court; the case would be a civil, rather than criminal, matter. The court could order students to attend counseling or tutoring programs. A truancy conviction or complaint under the former law will be expunged. 

Paperwork redundancy

HB 1706 provides that the already-mandated commissioner review of paperwork requirements must include a comparison of reports and paperwork required by the state to those required by federal law. The commissioner must eliminate any state mandates that are duplicative of federally-required reports/paperwork. 

Change in school year requirement

HB 2610 eliminates the 180-day requirement and replaces it with 75,600 minutes (an equivalent amount of time). If the commissioner does not approve reduced instructional time because of bad weather or disasters, the law gives flexibility to districts to add instructional minutes to the end of normal school hours to compensate for the lost instructional time, rather than adding days to the end of the school year. The bill also prohibits districts from scheduling the last day of school any earlier than May 15.

Studies on testing and TEKS

HB 743 requires TEA to study and report to the State Board of Education the number of subjects of required tests in grades 3-8, how tests assess standards essential for student success and whether they should also assess supporting standards. It also requires that TEA study the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills to evaluate the number and scope of TEKS in each subject and whether they should be limited. The SBOE will review the reports and make recommendations to the legislature by May 2016. These studies are intended to address educator complaints that the state assessments test too many standards for teachers to adequately cover in the allotted instructional time. 

Prekindergarten

HB 4 creates a mechanism for additional funding for districts that provide a “high quality” prekindergarten program. High quality pre-K requires the use of a curriculum that includes guidelines established by TEA and that measures student progress (Common Core is specifically prohibited). Teachers must be certified and have either a Child Development Associate credential, Montessori certification, eight years of experience teaching in a nationally accredited child care program, be employed in a district that has received approval from the commissioner for a specific instructional training plan, or an equivalent qualification. The teacher credential requirement does not go into effect until the 2016-17 school year.

Limitations on certification retakes

HB 2205 limits retakes of certification exams to no more than four, unless the limitation is waived for good cause by the State Board for Educator Certification. A person who took an exam before Sept. 1, 2015, may retake the exam up to four times after that date, regardless of how many times they attempted the exam prior to that date.

No vaping

SB 97 regulates vapor products (e-cigarettes), including provisions adding e-cigarettes to the statues that prohibit the use of tobacco products on school property.

Reading and math academies

SB 925, SB 934 and SB 972 require the commissioner to develop academies for (respectively) K-3 teachers providing reading instruction, K-3 teachers providing math instruction, and fourth- and fifth-grade teachers providing reading comprehension instruction. Participating teachers are entitled to a stipend, and preference will be given to teachers at campuses where more than 50 percent of students are educationally disadvantaged.

Coming soon

Video cameras in special education classrooms

Under the provisions of SB 507, starting with the 2016-17 school year, districts will be required to provide a video camera and related equipment for each self-contained special education classroom if requested by a parent, trustee or staff member. Cameras must be able to cover all areas of the classroom (except for the inside of a bathroom or any area in which a student’s clothes are changed) and record audio from all areas of the classroom. The school must provide written notice to all school staff and to parents of the students in the classroom. The school may not allow regular or continual monitoring of the video, or use the video for teacher evaluation or any other purpose other than the safety of the students in the classroom. The video from the classroom is confidential and can only be viewed under circumstances related to a complaint or investigation. 

Restructured focus on writing tests

HB 743 requires that standardized assessments in grades 3-5 be designed so that 85 percent of students can complete the test within 120 minutes; and for assessments in grades 6-8, 85 percent of students should be able to finish within 180 minutes. The bill also requires that an assessment in grades 3-8 must occur on a single day, which means that the fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests will have to be redesigned. TEA announced that the first administration of the writing tests restructured to conform to these requirements will be in the spring of 2017.

Under a separate bill, HB 1164, TEA will establish a pilot program for an alternative method of assessing writing in grades 4-7, as well as the English I and II end-of-course exams. TEA will be working with the testing contractors to develop the alternative assessment method. The pilot will begin with the 2016-17 school year.

Reduced emphasis on testing in accountability system

HB 2804 added a non-test-based fifth domain to the existing four-domain rating system and added more non-test-based indicators to the fourth domain.  The indicators in the fifth domain are three programs or categories of community and student engagement selected by a school district and campus.

The bill also ensures the accountability system ratings will be more sensitive to the level that the campus represents, so that, for example, the indicators upon which a middle school is rated are different from those for a high school. As an example, instead of being rated solely on student state test performance as in the past, elementary school ratings will additionally be based on student attendance rates. For high schools, the bill adds more non-test-based indicators in the fourth domain, such as student attendance rates, and the percentage of students completing a coherent sequence of career and technical courses, completing an advanced placement course, and/or entering the military.  For middle schools, additional non-test-based indicators include the percentage of students in grades 7 and 8 receiving instruction in preparing for high school, college and a career, as well as student attendance rates.  

Additionally, the bill requires that no more than 55 percent of a school or district’s overall accountability rating can be based on test-related measures. All of these provisions will go into effect beginning with the 2017-18 school year.