Tag Archives: sped

House committee looks at testing, special ed issues

The House Committee on Public Education met Thursday morning at the Texas Capitol to discuss interim charges related to testing and special education. The interim charges are assigned by Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) and are generally composed of a detailed list of topics for each standing committee to research and discuss before the next legislative session. The following charges were on Thursday’s agenda:

  • Examine research-based options for evaluating student achievement beyond standardized test scores, including adaptive and portfolio assessments. Examine the scope of the current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)in grades with the state assessment, including the format, assessment calendar, and the limits of instructional days, if any. Determine if it is appropriate to limit TEKS to readiness standards that can be taught in less than the school year. Review current Student Success Initiative testing and make recommendations on its continuation or repeal. Review the ability of the state to waive standardized testing for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • Examine programs in public schools that have proven results meeting the needs of and improving student achievement for students with disabilities, with an emphasis on programs specializing in autism, dysgraphia, and dyslexia. Recommend ways to support and scale innovative programs for these students, including providing supplemental services, or incentivizing public-private partnerships or inter district and charter school collaborations. Monitor the implementation and funding for the pilot programs authorized in H.B. 21 (85R) and review the Texas Education Agency’s compliance with S.B. 160 (85R), which prohibits special education student caps.

After updating the committee on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) response to the Santa Fe school shooting and recent STAAR test glitches, Commissioner Mike Morath began his testimony by summarizing the overall design of the STAAR test and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) upon which tests are based. Morath pointed to one idea, splitting the STAAR test into sections to allow more flexible scheduling, that he suggested may require legislative guidance before ordering further agency research.

House Public Education Committee meeting May 24, 2018.

Members of the committee raised questions about the writing test, in particular with regard to grading methods. Morath indicated that a writing program created as a result of legislation by state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) has yielded useful information, and noted that additional appropriation to continue the program would be a positive step.

Rep. VanDeaver asked Morath how much money could be saved by eliminating standardized tests that are required by the state, but not by federal law. House Bill (HB) 515 filed by VanDeaver during the 2017 legislative session would have eliminated tests not mandated under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and was estimated to result in a savings of $7 million. The bill was ultimately unsuccessful.

Other invited testimony included a panel of superintendents who testified to the overreliance on standardized tests for everything from student advancement to school accountability. Granger ISD Superintendent Randy Willis asked the committee to consider eliminating a single summative assessment at the end of the year in favor of multiple formative assessments and reducing the number of assessed standards. Doug Williams, Superintendent of Sunnyvale ISD, voiced support for dividing the STAAR into sections, ongoing diagnostic assessments, and making substantial changes to the writing portion of the exam. Part of the panel discussion touched on allowing teachers to directly grade writing exams, in other to provide better feedback and analysis.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified before the committee on the specificity of the TEKS, teaching versus testing, and corollary applications to the teacher pipeline. Other public testimony focused on portfolio assessments, such as rubrics developed by the New York Performance Standards Consortium.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying before House Public Education Committee May 24, 2018.

After a brief break, the committee turned its focus to special education. TEA Deputy Commissioner Penny Schwinn walked members through the corrective action plan prepared by the agency to address the de facto cap on special education enrollment that resulted in a federal rebuke. Schwinn emphasized that current and future guidance indicates students with dyslexia should not be arbitrarily confined to Section 504 programs, but may qualify for special education services depending on the individual.

A number of advocacy organizations were invited to testify regarding the agency’s actions. Among the concerns raised by special education advocates was the timeline for implementation. Chris Masey with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities presented the dichotomy between progress at the policy level and frustration felt by parents looking for meaningful results. Masey also noted there hasn’t exactly been a surge in special education enrollment after the cap was lifted. Heather Sheffield with Decoding Dyslexia suggested policymakers explore a way to enforce the Dyslexia Handbook developed by TEA.

Additionally, advocates asked for per-pupil funding for dyslexia, as well as having adequate instructional time and funding for both training and staffing. One advocate testified that training alone for a special education teacher can top $5,000. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter thanked the committee for the work done last session to address the cap, as well as funding weights for special education. Exter drew the committee’s attention to districts’ ability to provide external services already. While therapeutic and educational services are both available, the primary focus of special education should be on educational services, and any therapeutic services covered by district or state funds should be in furtherance of the educational objectives.

Expenditures working group addresses special ed

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on expenditures led by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) met Friday at the Texas Capitol to discuss special education spending.

As he testified in Thursday’s meeting of the full commission, Texas Education Agency (TEA) Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez testified the total state special education allotment in fiscal year 2018 is estimated at over $3 billion. This allotment is distributed according to subordinate weighted funding calculations for different instructional settings and is tied to contact hours. This year, 490,000 students are enrolled in special education, marking an increase of 40,000 since lawmakers ended TEA’s de facto 8.5 percent cap on special education enrollment.

School finance commission working group on expenditures meeting May 4, 2018.

Steven Aleman with Disability Rights Texas (DRT) and Kristin McGuire with the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE) testified that special education is a service, not a place. Furthermore, they testified that the current weights are outdated and the funding formula is not transparent. McGuire said inclusive settings are almost always the most desired outcome, but the system is not set up with this in mind. The current funding weights haven’t been updated since 1993.

McGuire noted that many dyslexic students are not receiving adequate services, and the State Board of Education (SBOE) is in the process of updating the dyslexia handbook. Commission and SBOE Member Keven Ellis (D-Lufkin) confirmed the board hopes to finalize a new handbook in the fall.

Aleman suggested reducing the number of steps involved in calculating special education funding, which could save districts money currently spent on consultants need to aid in navigating the funding process. Aleman also suggested undertaking a systemic study of the costs of weights, settings and services, and suggested weights should be updated. Additionally, the state should move toward a service intensity-based funding system, as opposed to a setting-based system, and should extend special education services to students with disabilities that are currently classified differently, such as under Section 504.

Responding to questions from the working group members regarding the true cost of special education services, McGuire said advocates nationwide have struggled to get a concrete handle on the subject. Huberty indicated that advocates need to offer hard numbers if they believe additional funding is necessary.

Justin Porter, Executive Director for Special Populations at TEA, responded to a number of questions from the board. Porter testified that children struggling with reading or math who may not have exhibited a clear disability and are currently served through interventions would be the most likely population to comprise a majority of students entering the special education program as a result of doing away with the special education cap. Huberty noted these would likely be students with dyslexia, autism or related disorders. Dyslexic students are served by the special education system in many other states, but that is not the case in Texas.

Porter testified that absentee rates among special education students could anecdotally be attributed to services outside of the public school setting, such as medical procedures, and indicated that untethering funding from daily attendance for special education students may be worth consideration. Working group members also asked TEA for a breakdown of the sources of funding used to provide transportation to special education students.

Regarding Section 504, Porter said TEA has no authority over 504, but is trying to offer more guidance to school districts in this area. Porter suggested 504 protections are generally offered to students in need of a variety of accommodations, such as those suffering from food allergies.

Huberty concluded by suggesting that providing resources for parents to spend outside the classroom may be more effective than increasing resources in the classroom, and suggested advocates bring more solutions to the table.

TEA seeking public input on special education plan

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Tuesday it is accepting public comments on the draft strategic plan for special education through noon, April 18.

As reported previously at Teach the Vote, the agency released its Draft Special Education Improvement Plan and Corrective Action Response last month to fix critical failures in the state’s special education system. The draft plan varies little from an initial draft the agency circulated in January, and the agency is seeking additional input on the latest version. You can e-mail feedback to TexasSPED@tea.texas.gov.

The plan carries a $211 million price tag, which does not include a substantial cost anticipated to be incurred by local school districts. The districts will be expected to perform the bulk of the work meeting the needs of children who were wrongfully denied special education services in the past due to districts’ following a TEA directive to limit special education enrollment. Because of this funding challenge, many school administrators are warning they will need additional financial support from the state in order to properly serve qualifying children. The Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE) noted this in a press release last month, saying the TEA plan “is rich with school district monitoring and compliance measures, but fails to offer adequate financial and other support to districts.” Read the full TCASE press statement here.

The TEA will aggregate feedback and send a final version of the special education improvement plan to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education by April 23, 2018.