House Public Education Committee hears bills and testimony on assessment

On Tuesday, March 6, 2019, the House Public Education Committee heard six bills related to testing and the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

The committee began by hearing seven panels of invited testimony from superintendents and other district leaders, teachers, Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff, and parents. Their comments generally centered around the reliability of STAAR testing in light of recent articles reporting that reading tests are written at a grade level above that of the students being tested (Texas Monthly, The New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle). Many issues arose during the rich discussion, including the misalignment between the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards and how the TEKS are tested; the misalignment of expectations between TEA and school districts; the negative impact of testing on students; and the flawed public narrative that inaccurate tests create.

The first panel was composed of superintendents from Alief ISD, Northside ISD, San Marcos ISD, and Granger ISD. The general sentiment among the panelists was that the state should have assessments with appropriately rigorous standards, but make sure they are valid, fair, meaningful, and timely. Additionally, witnesses testified that the tests should undergo rigorous review and field-testing. The danger lies in misalignment between the expectations of test and the expectations of standards, as well as misalignment with other assessments and what teachers know about tests. This results in the STAAR tests creating an inaccurate narrative and in students giving up on their passions.

The second panel included Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who stated that the STAAR tests were meant to predict post-secondary outcomes. Morath emphasized that National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) outcomes have remained flat or declined over the past decade, and he defended the reliability of the STAAR tests. He did admit that the Texas student population has increased significantly over time and grown progressively poorer. Appearing with Morath were three reading experts, one of whom was from the organization that developed lexile scores, Meta-Metrics. Dr. Sanford-Moore of Meta-Metrics explained that lexiles are based on a computer algorithm and measure language structure based on the number of ideas in a sentence and the vocabulary used.

Reps. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), Morgan Meyer (R-Highland Park), and Mary Gonzalez (D- Clint) all made compelling points about the tests. VanDeaver stated, “These are children and not machines. What happens when we reach that level that goes beyond challenging and becomes frustrating and the child shuts down?” Similarly, Meyer shared a story of his fourth-grade daughter, who cried on the way to school the day of the STAAR test and came home defeated. Meyer said, “You call it challenge, I call it frustration.” Gonzalez reiterated her previous comment that it is imperative for the public purpose of the tests to be clear.

This led to a flurry of discussion, bouncing from issue to issue within the educational system, including the A-F accountability grading system; expectations for teachers and district leadership to understand the STAAR test; the use of tests for grade promotion and teacher evaluations; teacher and student stress; curriculum; professional development; and educator preparation. Overall, the range of topics that arose seemed to point to a disconnect between the agency’s expectation of teachers, districts, and students, and the practices and understandings of school districts.

At the four-hour mark of the hearing, the testimony of the third through seventh panels proceeded much more quickly. Another panel of superintendents from Comal ISD, Wylie ISD, and Frisco ISD testified that they used multiple interim assessments and instructional quality improvements to perform well on the STAAR. Additionally, Dr. Mike Waldrip of Frisco ISD said that the timing of the STAAR test at the end of the year wasn’t particularly useful for making preparations for the next year. A fourth panel composed of district leaders in literacy and learning expressed a key takeaway: that there is a disconnect between the reading level of instruction using the TEKS versus the reading level of assessment. The fifth panel, composed of teachers and an interventionist, was deemed the best panel of the day by Rep. Dr. Alma Allen (D-Houston), a long-time member of the committee who is also an educator. Notably affecting the committee members, one of the panelists announced that the time elapsed in the hearing was about the same amount of time students sit for a STAAR test. This panel also spoke to the needs of students and teachers in having the appropriate tools to provide relevant and effective instruction so that students can succeed on state tests. The sixth and seventh panels, which included other district leaders, parents, and stakeholders echoed much of the sentiments in of the previous panels, such as the negative impact of testing on students.

After nearly six hours of testimony from the invited panelists, who provided invaluable insights on the reliability, validity, and usefulness of testing to the state’s educational system, the committee turned its attention to hearing the bills posted on the agenda.

ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testifies in the House Public Education Committee, March 5, 2019.

ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified neutrally on House Bill (HB) 671 by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian). HB 671 would eliminate end-of-course (EOC) examinations and replace them with a school district’s choice of  either the TSI or a nationally recognized, norm-referenced assessment such as ACT or SAT, to be administered in grade 11. Under the bill, the commissioner would contract with a vendor to administer the assessment. HB 671 also mandates that each district require students to attend a preparation course to succeed on the test and defines college readiness. Chevalier expressed that while ATPE supports the reduction in mandated state tests, we want to ensure that any test used to replace the STAAR is both appropriate as an input into the state accountability system and provides the appropriate accommodations for students receiving special education services, students under a 504 plan, and English language learners.

ATPE registered positions in support of the following bills:

  • HB 525 (Tinderholt, R-Arlington): Would limit the required assessments to just mathematics, reading, and science (eliminating writing, social studies, English II, and US History tests)
  • HB 851 (Huberty, R- Kingwood): Would eliminate the September 1, 2019 expiration date of the law authorizing Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs)
  • HB 1480 (VanDeaver, R- New Boston): Would create an accelerated learning committee (ALC) for students who do not perform satisfactorily on third, fifth, or eighth grade reading or math assessments. Also would allow accelerated instruction to be provided to the student in the following year. The ALC would develop an educational plan for the student, provide assistance to student, and perform additional duties if the student doesn’t meet the standard for a second time after accelerated instruction. HB 1480 would also eliminate the requirement that assessments are used for promotion. The bill would eliminate social studies and US History assessments and require the commissioner to gather input from districts on an assessment schedule that minimizes disruption and maximizes instruction time.

Other bills heard in committee were:

  • HB 843 (Springer, R-Gainesville): Would allow for the inclusion of optional post-secondary readiness assessments in Algebra II and English III in the accountability system under the student achievement domain
  • HB 1244  (Ashby, R- Lufkin): Would eliminate the US History EOC and create an electronic civics test as a requirement for graduation, which would contain all questions on the U.S. Citizenship test in a multiple-choice format.

The House Public Education Committee plans to meet again next week. On Tuesday, March 12, the committee will to hear Chairman Huberty’s comprehensive school finance reform bill, HB 3, filed earlier this week. Chairman Huberty also said he expects HB 3 to reach the House floor by the first week of April. Over half the members of the Texas House have already signed on as co-authors for HB 3. The committee also expects to meet next Wednesday to hear other bills. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates.

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