Accountability bill clears committee; emphasizes college readiness; ends high-stakes testing

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This post was written by by Abby Rapoport, Texas Monthly intern–PB HB 3, Rob Eissler’s school accountability bill, passed out of committee with only one “no” vote—no easy feat given the opposition he faced from many school groups and minority lawmakers when he laid out the bill a month ago. The bill addresses what Eissler calls, “the three Rs—rigor, relevance and relationships.” Ultimately, the bill pushes Texas to become one of the top ten states in achieving post-secondary readiness. It requires districts to increase the number of students meeting college readiness standards–not just passing standards–and follows students during their college years to see if readiness standards are sufficient to assure college success. The education commissioner determines the specifics of the standards, but the trend toward post-secondary readiness is clear. It offers three high school diploma plans—advanced, recommended, and minimum. Regarding the recommended plan, the bill maintains the current 4 by 4 structure (English, math, science, and social studies requirements for four years of high school), as well as requiring two years of a language. Additionally, it allows students to take eight undefined electives within the recommended plan. (Currently the SBOE defines such electives.) Students on the minimum plan will still have defined electives. However, math and science is only mandated through Algebra II and Physics. The new curriculum also emphasizes Career and Technical and applied classes and allows them to be used in the 4 by 4 plan. The curriculum also gets rid of the unpopular rule that 65 percent of educational expenditures must go to the classroom, which made it difficult to fund other parts of school budgets like cafeterias and school buses. The bill has been a clear priority for the Public Education chairman since the beginning of the session; he spent much of the committee’s first meeting explaining goals the bill contains. He outlined his plan to move away from high stakes testing focusing on minimum performance. “We’re gonna get out of that game,” Eissler said then. At the time, he particularly emphasized that campuses would earn distinction for achievement in specific areas, like closing gaps, 21st Century Workforce Development, fine arts, and physical education (among others). But when the actual bill surfaced in committee, several members of the Black Caucus—Dutton, Olivo, Allen and Mallory-Caraway (who is not a committee member) all voiced deep concerns, mostly centering on whether the three diplomas constituted tracking. All four members worried that at-risk students, and minority students in particular, would be herded into the minimum program. “Every time we fix something, it’s the students at the bottom who somehow don’t get fixed,” said Dutton. “[The bill] places them not only out of mind but out of sight.” Now Dutton has signed on as a co-author. The turn-around comes after meetings between Eissler and the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus and the Black Caucus. The committee substitute stipulates that all students will be in the recommended track, and they can only opt out if they are over 16, have finished tenth grade (although they don’t need to pass), and have a parent’s permission. To prevent forgeries, the bill also requires schools send out information to parents in both English and Spanish about the advantages of the recommended program. The education commissioner is directed to investigate schools graduating a disproportionate number of students on minimum plan. Although the bill maintains a testing system, it offers flexibility for struggling schools. Student improvement counts towards the passing and college readiness standards, and schools would be recognized for improvement in completion rates. Schools be judged either by a three-year rolling average or by the current year’s performance. Schools making progress would get an extra year before reconstitution or closure to fix problems. After reconstitution, campuses would also get an additional year to meet standards. Additionally, the bill allows repurposing a school as an alternative to closure and prohibits the commissioner from requiring schools to change names. Amendments continue to come forward, and yesterday Diane Patrick and Alma Allen both stated their intentions to continue tweaking elements of the bill. In particular, Allen focused on how to count drop-outs to avoid duplication. Olivo, the only no vote on the committee, argued that in allowing schools to offer unique electives, the bill reversed “the decade long commitment to have a statewide curriculum.” However, she pointed to parts she liked—particularly the addition of parental involvement in opting out of the recommended program. Eissler remains adamant that the bill never did track students. “It was never there,” he said. “Now we’re making sure that it can’t be there.” Shapiro’s version of the bill remains in committee.

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