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Legislative Updates

May 31, 2018

TACS Legislative Update

As we have been winding down the school year and trying not to melt in the 100-degree heat that has already hit Austin, there have been some stirrings at the Texas capitol. The horrible school shooting in Santa Fe has been on all of our minds, and Governor Abbott held meetings last week to discuss possible school safety action items and made an announcement on Wednesday. Chairman Dan Huberty convened the House Public Education Committee to discuss two interim items related to assessment and special education, and at the meeting, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addressed the online testing failures for STAAR. Since I know you are busy finishing up the year, I’ll give you the highlights and my key takeaways. If you want more nitty-gritty details, let me know and I’ll gladly oblige.

Governor Abbott – School Safety
Last week, following the Santa Fe school shooting, Governor Abbott held three days of meetings on school gun violence. His goal was to identify problems, seek solutions, and determine whether a special legislative session would be needed before the legislature convenes in January of 2019. Wednesday of this week, Governor Abbott released a lengthy (40+ page) document outlining a 40-strategy plan to prevent future school shootings. The strategies in his proposal fall under three general categories: 1) Making schools safer, 2) Preventing threats in advance, and 3) Enhancing firearms safety. 

One of his proposed solutions would be to expand the School Marshal Program that arms school personnel. He would increase the number of school marshals and provide firearms proficiency training this summer. He also proposed expanding statewide a mental health screening program run by Texas Tech that is currently being used in 10 school districts. Minor gun-related proposals were made including changing Texas’s firearms storage law to include 17-year-olds, and encouraging (not mandating) the use of gun locks. 

Abbott acknowledged that his plan would require funding, and he identified $70 million that is immediately available and another $30 million he would ask the Legislature to approve when it meets. The immediate funds would come from the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division and federal funds. The Governor said that if there is consensus on some laws that could be passed, he would be open to calling a special session. No decision has been made yet.

House Public Education Committee
The House Public Education Committee met on Thursday, May 24th to consider the following two interim charges:
1. Examine research-based options for evaluating student achievement beyond standardized test scores, including adaptive and portfolio assessments. Examine the scope of the current TEKS in grades with the state assessment, including the format, assessment calendar, and the limits of instructional days, if any. Determine if it is appropriate to limit TEKS to readiness standards that can be taught in less than the school year. Review current Student Success Initiative testing and make recommendations on its continuation or repeal. Review the ability of the state to waive standardized testing for students with significant cognitive disabilities. 
2. Examine programs in public schools that have proven results meeting the needs of and improving student achievement for students with disabilities, with an emphasis on programs specializing in autism, dysgraphia, and dyslexia. Recommend ways to support and scale innovative programs for these students, including providing supplemental services, or incentivizing public-private partnerships or inter district and charter school pilot programs authorized in H.B. 21 (85R) and review the Texas Education Agency’s compliance with S.B. 160 (85R) which prohibits special education student caps. 

On the first item on the agenda, assessment, TEA was first up to bat. The Commissioner discussed STAAR, the new student report card, the costs of various exams and their pros and cons. STAAR was already in the hot seat after the most recent testing crisis where tens of thousands of special ed students had connection problems while trying to take their STAAR tests online. Chairman Huberty asked Commissioner Morath if it was really true that ETS has had problems two of the last three years, and he replied yes. 

In response to online testing problems, Commissioner Morath announced three specific actions TEA will take. 
1. Test results for students impacted by online testing issues will be taken into account for this year’s campus and district accountability ratings;
2. State passing requirements for 5th and 8th-grade students impacted by online testing issues will be waived;
3. ETS will be fined $100,000, which is the maximum amount allowable under their contract.

The Commissioner also reported that TEA is opening the contract process for next year and is thinking of breaking the contract and the testing into smaller parts. Commissioner Morath suggested the committee think about splitting the test into smaller sections that would be given on different days, and allowing for flexibility for districts in scheduling. 

He also spoke about adaptive tests and portfolio assessments and there was some discussion of the portfolio-based writing pilot that was created under Representative VanDeaver’s HB 1164 that was passed during the 2015 legislative session. I perked up when he mentioned the New York Performance Standards Consortium in the context of his discussion of portfolio assessments. This model has been very effective in preparing students in low-income at-risk communities for college and other post-secondary options. It is an extremely engaging program that is not based on standardized tests, but instead uses project-based learning and engages students through relevant hands-on coursework. This program came up in public testimony many times during the course of the hearing. Commissioner Morath said that more study would be needed before such a system could be implemented in lieu of STAAR but that it seemed classroom experience (what I would deem most important) and user experience (for kids and teachers) would improve with such a system. The concerns he raised were with the reliability of scoring and inter-rater reliability. I would argue that those issues exist with STAAR already, especially in the writing section. 

We were proud to have two stellar TACS superintendents provide invited testimony on this issue. Randy Willis, Superintendent of Granger ISD, stressed the problems with having one summative exam. He urged the committee to support a move from a culture of testing to a culture of learning. He also asked why we have the TSI and EOCs, and suggested they were duplicative. The TSI alone would save time, money, and potentially provide additional diagnostic information. Doug Williams, Superintendent of Sunnyvale ISD, and Christi Morgan, Assistant Superintendent of Sunnyvale ISD, spoke of the value of multiple assessments, the problems with STAAR writing, and said that they give the MAP test and do portfolio assessments in writing and history. She was the first of many to urge the committee to remove the high stakes on students, as it kills off their intrinsic motivation to learn.

Public testimony from teachers, parents, minority groups, and education advocates stressed a few common themes: 1) eliminate high stakes from standardized testing 2) move to portfolio-based assessments away from one-size fits all tests 3) reduce the number of tests to federal requirements. Monty Exter from ATPE said it best when he said: “get testing out of the way of learning.” The committee (although the meeting was poorly attended) seemed supportive of the testimony, and there was a feeling of hope in the air that perhaps we could really move away from some of the most harmful aspects of our testing regime. 

On the second charge of meeting the needs and improving the achievement of students with disabilities, invited testimony from disability groups focused on the short timeline and limited funding for implementing the special education corrective plan. Witnesses consistently argued that additional time and funds are needed to make real and needed changes.

It dampened my temporary euphoria to remember that Chairman Huberty and the House Public Education Committee have been consistently supportive of efforts to fund public schools, reduce standardized testing, and support students with dyslexia and other learning differences. This is nothing new. Good bills have been sent over to the Senate and been mangled beyond recognition, and sometimes even been killed outright. Until we have both chambers support public education, it will be hard to bring positive change to fruition. Again, it comes down to voting. I know I’m a broken record, but, alas, it is true. 

Please accept my best wishes for a successful completion of your school year. We will keep you abreast of further legislative developments in the coming weeks and months. 


Laura Yeager
TACS Governmental Relations





Past Legislative Updates

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June 4th

June 3rd (wrap-up)

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Contact Information

Texas Association of Community Schools
1011 San Jacinto Blvd., Ste. 204
Austin, Texas 78701-2431
Phone: (512) 440-8227
Fax: (512) 442-6705