Report on Senate Education Committee’s interim hearing on testing and virtual schools

The Senate Education Committee met Aug. 26 to discuss two of its interim charges:

Senate Interim Charge #1 (Portion of Charge):

Examine STAAR writing scores for elementary, middle and high school students. For grade levels tested in writing, review the types of writing required. Explore the need for targeted professional development in writing.

Senate Interim Charge #2:

Monitor the implementation of legislation addressed by the Senate Committee on Education, 83rd Legislature, Regular and Called Sessions, and make recommendations for any legislation needed to improve, enhance and/or complete implementation. Specifically, monitor the following: HB 5, SB 376, HB 617 and HB 1926.

The Committee heard from multiple panels as well as Commissioner of Education Michael Williams.

HB 5 and the STAAR writing test

The Committee heard testimony from a panel including Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff and educators about challenges involving the STAAR writing test as well as testimony from a separate panel and Commissioner Williams on STAAR cut scores.

Dr. Dawson Orr, the superintendent of Highland Park ISD, presented testimony that the STAAR writing test is seriously flawed, particularly in comparisons to instruments such as the ACT. He informed the committee that the writing curriculum standards (TEKS) are good, but the writing test does not capture the learning associated with those TEKS. Additionally, he pointed out that institutions of higher education are not looking for and do not care about the skills tested by the STAAR writing test. According to the witness, a 26-line formulaic writing test simply does not give us good information, and in some districts, may cause kids to learn to write poorly.

Commissioner Williams engaged in a conversation with the committee on the STAAR cut scores and the effectiveness of the testing regime generally. When pressed by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D–San Antonio) on the failures of the STAAR test, the Commissioner blamed the state’s failure to make more rapid gains on poor instruction. Many in the room equated his statements to shift blame from a poorly designed and administered test to educators. However, as one education representative noted, poor teaching would result in equally poor results across all test instruments gauging college readiness, which does not appear to be the case for students in many situations who are successful on other standardized and non-standardized measures of academic achievement.

SB 376

Senate Bill 376 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D–Brownsville) expanded the School Breakfast Program for campuses where 80 percent or more of the student population qualifies for federal free or reduced breakfast. Under the bill, campuses meeting the 80 percent threshold must provide breakfast to 100 percent of the students at the campus, as opposed to only students who would otherwise qualify for free and reduced breakfast on their own. Despite the fact that the bill was cost-neutral to the state and school districts thanks to federal dollars, districts have the ability to opt out of the program by requesting a waiver. Of the approximately 2,600 campuses to which the bill applies, only 38 have requested a waiver.

HB 617

The committee heard testimony on the implementation of House Bill 617 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D–Austin) which expands transition services for students with disabilities entering the workforce or a higher education setting. As a result of the bill, a transitions guide will be developed.

HB 1926

House Bill 1926 by Rep. Ken King (R–Canadian) made several modifications to the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN), which regulates both full-time virtual learning providers and the individual virtual course catalog.

A major amendment added to the bill by Sen. Van de Putte calls for a statewide broadband study of ISDs to determine the state’s technology and connectivity capacity. A TEA representative testified to the committee that the study should begin mid- to late September of this year and be concluded in November with results available mid- to late spring of next year.

TEA staff also reported to the committee that rules codifying the statutory requirements for HB 1926 have been adopted by the agency. In addition to new rules, there is a new design for the online portal to the TxVSN statewide catalog and new informed choice reports called for as a component of the legislation.

Additional public testimony was taken on both sides of the often contentious issue of virtual learning. A representative from iNACOL (a national association of virtual providers) voiced a complaint about the restriction on districts being required to offer students a virtual course that is substantially similar to a traditional, non-virtual one already offered by the ISD. Another testifier with the Foundation for Educational Excellence asked to consider taking quality control out of the hands of the districts and to increase the level of funding going to for-profit course providers. A representative from the Coalition for Public Schools (CPS) testified that control and accountability of the online learning environment should remain with districts that are accountable to taxpayers as opposed to private providers that are accountable only to their shareholders. The testifier also pointed out that while the coalition does not oppose the existence or limited use of online learning, a significant body of research points to it being a far less effective method of teaching kids.

All or part of the committee hearing can be found at the Texas Senate video archive under Senate Committee on Education 8/26/14.

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