Update, 5/7/19 11:41 a.m.: The Texas Senate passed the House-sponsored school finance bill following several hours of debate on Monday by a vote of 26-2. The version passed by the upper chamber still includes the testing provision, but no longer includes a state sales tax hike as a source of funding. Since the House passed a different version of the bill last week, the two chambers must meet in a conference committee to iron out the differences. Both chambers must still pass a finalized version before it heads to Governor Greg Abbott for his signature.
Unless you happen to be a parent of a public school fifth grader, you may have missed the latest STAAR test fumble, in which the f-word somehow snuck into an illustration on a practice test. This is cause for concern—it certainly validates the worries of educators and parents who have long wondered just who the hell is overseeing the test contents—but now there are bigger reservations about the infamous standardized test. (We previously reported that two academic studies showed that the reading portion of the STAAR is at least two years above grade level.)
Last Wednesday night members of the Senate Education Committee started doing some last-minute tinkering with the school finance bill, known to legislators as House Bill 3. The changes involved the STAAR exam. While some of the changes look beneficial—proposals to break up the test into smaller parts and even to consider possible replacements—critics of the STAAR still claim that the state of Texas will continue to tie school funding to a test whose accuracy remains debatable.
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“They did it with no hearing, making major changes to our testing system and trying to pull a fast one on our senators,” said Theresa Treviño, vice president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful School Assessment (TAMSA), an organization that has long opposed the STAAR. Word went out far and wide, urging calls of protest to the governor, lieutenant governor, Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, and any and all state legislators.
If the changes are adopted, school funding will be tied even more closely to the STAAR —with dollars at least partially dependent on the number of third graders who “meet grade level.” (Note to eight year olds: don’t worry, no pressure.) The Senate Education Committee members also added four more writing tests, which most certainly will not mollify those already frustrated by the number of exams students are required to take in all-day sessions, to say nothing of the semester-long test prep that takes away from actual learning. Back in 2012, students were required to take fifteen tests in all; that number was reduced during the 2013 session to five after a wave of protests, and now would be back up to 21, including the five end-of-course tests for high school students looking to graduate.
The bill, as written, also transfers more power from the State Board of Education to the Texas Education Agency and its commissioner, Mike Morath. (One industrious researcher noted that the word “commissioner” comes up nearly five hundred times in the 351-page bill, giving weight to those who suggest that the war between state and local control of education is still being waged with great fervor.)
In short, those concerned about the STAAR test’s accuracy and efficacy have, once again, been dissed. Educators, teachers, and parents have complained to the Legislature and the TEA that the high-stakes testing has damaged students in myriad ways while failing to measure real academic progress, and yet few substantive changes have been made. Groups like TAMSA point fingers at the power of voucher-supporting grownups like Empower Texans and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, both of which are close to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, whose lack of support for public schools is well known. “One way to support vouchers and school choice is to discredit public schools by adding more tests, and make them more aggressive and draconian,” says Treviño.
Kara Belew, senior education policy advisor at Texas Public Policy Foundation, denies that the group had a hand in drafting the bill, but argues that the moratorium on STAAR testing requested by its critics would do more damage to the 606,000 Texas schoolchildren already stuck in low-performing schools. “It’s a lot easier for school administrators to say something is wrong with the STAAR than to admit they are failing to teach hundreds of thousands of children to read and do math,” she says. Belew also repeated the TEA claim that the STAAR exams are rigorously field-tested by Texas teachers, which, given the recent misstep with the illustration-embedded f-word, isn’t all that reassuring.
At this writing, Senator Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, has submitted an amendment to HB 3 asking for a state audit of the STAAR and to remove the financial incentives based on the test results of eight-year-olds. The decision to amend or ignore it now falls to Taylor, who so far has toed the TEA line. The vote on school finance is Monday. Should be a long weekend for both sides.