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Commissioner updates SBOE on HB 3 and other education bills

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath updated the State Board of Education (SBOE) today, June 12, 2019, on recent bills passed by the 86th Texas Legislature affecting public education. His remarks included comments on the major school finance and reform bill, House Bill (HB) 3.

Commissioner Morath began with a review of HB 3906, which makes several changes to how state assessments are delivered. Intended do reduce test anxiety, the bill bthis blog post from the ATPE lobby team.

Under HB 3, TEA is required to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a public institution to study the STAAR and ensure that the assessment meets certain criteria: It is to be written at the appropriate reading level; should only include content aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for that grade level or earlier grades; and should only include passages written at or below the reading level of the grade level for the assessment. This report is due to the legislature by December 1, 2019.

Commissioner Mike Morath addressing SBOE members on June 12, 2019.

The commissioner provided the board with a high-level review of the main components of HB 3, which the agency estimates will provide an average increase of $635 per student in average daily attendance (ADA). You can read the full analysis of HB 3 by ATPE’s lobbyists here.

Aside from new legislation, Commissioner Morath indicated that the agency has found the financial resources to follow through with the SBOE’s request to create a charter school transparency website, which will provide easy access to more information on charter schools. A beta version of the website will be available by spring 2020. This segued into a discussion on TEA’s process of reviewing applications for new charters, and the commissioner walked the board through the five applications he has recommended for approval, which were announced late last week. SBOE member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) pointed out the short notice and requested that the agency provide its charter recommendations further ahead of time.

SBOE member Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) asked the commissioner to review the incentive pay program created under HB 3. Morath noted that local school districts will be able to develop programs based upon the current T-TESS evaluation system, with Texas Tech University tasked with reviewing districts’ programs for quality control. The commissioner added that while “master” teacher designations were envisioned as roughly the top five percent of teachers based on performance, the bill requires that the system enable all teachers to be mathematically able to qualify for the designation. Commissioner Morath pointed out that HB 3 requires that 90 percent of a district’s incentive pay funding must be used to increase the salary of teachers working on the campus at which the incentive pay program is in place, though not necessarily each teacher. With that in mind, Morath suggested that districts could “craftily invest in a teacher group.”

After the commissioner spoke, TEA’s governmental relations team updated the board on how the SBOE’s legislative recommendations fared during the 2019 legislative session. Hunter Thompson walked members through changes the legislature made to governance of the Permanent School Fund (PSF), which the board oversees, as well as incentives to hire and retain teachers, which Thompson suggested were included in the provisions of HB 3. Thompson also credited HB 3 with accomplishing a number of objectives laid out in the board’s Long-Range Plan (LRP) for Public Education. SBOE chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) and member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) suggested in the future that the board may consider drafting legislative recommendations earlier in order to spend more time educating legislators about those issues in the run-up to a legislative session.

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.

Commissioner briefs SBOE on teacher pay issues

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath addressed the State Board of Education (SBOE) Tuesday morning, kicking off the second day of the board’s week-long January meeting.

Commissioner Mike Morath addressing SBOE, January 29, 2019.

Morath began with a high-level review of the 2018 State of the State of Public Education annual report. Members asked the agency to produce a report detailing state scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test.

The commissioner walked members through efforts by the agency to create Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) guides to help educators and parents better understand the standards and alignment, as well as resources to help understand assessments and student expectations.

Commissioner Morath briefed members on efforts to review the assessment process, including organizational restructuring to embed the STAAR team within the agency’s curriculum department, which ensures that staff who participate in the TEKS review process are the same staff developing questions for the assessment.

Morath also responded to a question about the state of teacher pay legislation in the 86th Texas Legislature. The commissioner noted that a bill has already been filed to give teachers a $5,000 across-the-board raise. There is also legislation in the works to create a differentiated pay program. Morath discussed the impact of higher compensation on teacher quality, and explained that this is primarily aimed at increasing retention and attracting higher quality candidates who may otherwise be turned off by the limited salary potential of teaching.

Tuesday’s meeting included an update from Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) on the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, on which Ellis sat as the board’s sole representative. The final report can be found here.

Ellis said the commission’s goals included balancing the state and local share of funding for public education, restructuring the system by reallocating outdated or otherwise inefficient weights and programs, and substantially increasing the level of equity with significantly greater investment in low-income, underperforming student groups. Goals also included reducing the growth rate of property taxes and reliance on recapture, as well as infusing significant state funds into public education.

The commission contemplated proposals to slow recapture and property tax growth, including the governor’s plan, a plan by the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association (TTARA), and a share recapture plan. Ellis noted that the commission decided to allow the current legislative session to take up the discussion of revenues.

Responding to questions from other board members, Ellis suggested that the commission’s findings will likely involve at least one large package, with additional pieces filed individually. New board Member Aicha Davis (D-Dallas) asked about the sustainability of Dallas ISD’s “ACE” differentiated pay program. Ellis pointed out that the district’s superintendent testified to the program’s enormous cost.

The board will spend Wednesday hosting a learning roundtable at the Austin Convention Center, and will return to the TEA building on Thursday to break up into committees and elect committee chairs.

Commissioner: School fund management needs structural change

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) heard from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath Wednesday morning to begin the second day of its November meeting.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addresses SBOE, November 14, 2018.

Commissioner Morath began by congratulating Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) for his work as the board’s sole representative on the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, and called the recommendations put forward thus far by commission working groups “powerful.”

The commissioner praised the board for its handling of a funding dispute with the General Land Office (GLO) over the Permanent School Fund (PSF), formal oversight of which is split between the SBOE and the GLO’s School Land Board (SLB). Morath suggested legislators should address oversight of the PSF in its entirety. The commissioner pointed out that the PSF portion under the SLB’s stewardship has accumulated a $4 billion cash balance, which is creating a “significant drag” in terms of fund performance. Morath suggested legislators should consider structural changes, which could be worth an additional $150 million per year.

Commissioner Morath recapped the agency’s budget and priority initiatives, and disputed reports that the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR) calls for a reduction in state aid. The LAR is a formal budget request each agency prepares for legislators before each legislative session, and TEA’s LAR for the upcoming session seeks less state aid from general revenue (GR). The commissioner explained that this is required by the funding formulas, which have led to the burden shifting from state GR to local property tax revenues.

Member Ruben Cortez (R-San Antonio) pressed the commissioner as to whether that trend will continue. The commissioner repeated that the agency is complying with statute, and suggested this is the central question being addressed by the school finance commission.

Member Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-Converse) asked the commissioner to provide agency guidance for districts participating in or considering merging with charters under Senate Bill (SB) 1882, which was passed by the 85th Texas Legislature. Perez-Diaz noted that there are questions regarding who is formally in charge of schools at the local level after a contract with a charter is executed, and pointed out it seems districts are “building the plane while it’s in the air.” The commissioner said SB 1882 contracts now include 13 districts and 609 campuses.

In response to a question by Member Ellis regarding a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a $33 million penalty for failing to properly fund special education, Commissioner Morath indicated that the agency is actively trying to figure out its response moving forward.

The commissioner also fielded a question from Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) regarding the instructional materials portal, which legislators in 2017 ordered the commissioner to create as an online resource for educators. Perez noted there is concern how the portal will interact with the SBOE’s statutory authority to review instructional materials and the potential for creating duplicative processes. Commissioner Morath suggested the portal will evaluate a different set of factors than the SBOE.

Member Barbara Cargill (R-Conroe) also raised concern about transparency with regard to how portal material is evaluated, and clarifying that the board’s process will continue forward unchanged. The commissioner replied the agency is engaged in stakeholder outreach. Member Cargill suggested creating a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document.

Commissioner update on Santa Fe shooting, STAAR glitches

Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) opened Thursday’s interim meeting of the House Committee on Public Education by acknowledging the tragic school shooting in the town of Santa Fe, south of Houston. The chairman invited Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath to update the committee on the agency’s response to date.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addressing House Public Education Committee May 24, 2018.

Morath indicated that the agenda is providing attendance waivers and working to secure federal school violence funds for Santa Fe ISD. The commissioner is participating in a series of roundtable discussions on school shootings hosted this week by Gov. Greg Abbott, and testified that he is evaluating ideas raised in these discussions to determine which are actionable. While some ideas could be implemented by the agency, others would require legislative action.

“The challenges are legion,” said Morath, noting that Texas is home to some 8,600 school campuses.

Elaborating on the school violence funds available from the U.S. Department of Education through Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) grants, Morath said Broward County Florida, the site of the Parkland school shooting, received roughly a million dollars. Any additional federal funding would likely require a congressional appropriation.

Asked by Chair Huberty to explain the delay in information reaching Santa Fe High School parents on the day of the shooting, Morath explained medical reporting on casualties and the process of investigating and securing the premises both took time. Morath pointed out the response included 12 law enforcement agencies, and suggested more interdisciplinary drills could be helpful.

Wrapping up the discussion, Huberty indicated that he has been involved in talks with other state leaders to develop a joint effort to address school shootings next session.

Huberty also asked the commissioner to update the committee on the most recent glitch during STAAR test administration. Morath said the latest involved 29,000 mostly special education students who were taking the test online. A subcontractor for ETS, the test administrator, was performing a “bug fix” that resulted in servers dramatically slowing down. The agency is issuing a letter to administrators regarding the problem and is waiving School Success Initiative (SSI) requirements for Fifth grade students affected by the glitch. These 29,000 students will be factored out of local and district accountability unless including them would raise campus and district scores.

Huberty point out this is the second year in the past three to see problems under the ETS contract. Morath testified the agency has levied a $100,000 fine against ETS and will rebid the contract beginning in June.