Tag Archives: STAAR

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 20, 2020

It has been a strange week of social distancing, press conferences, rising coronavirus cases, and adjusting to new schedules and work environments. Feel free to get as close to your device as you’d like while reading the latest in education news updates from the ATPE Governmental Relations team, including a lighthearted reminder about the importance of teachers.


Gov. Abbott issues order to close all Texas schools, March 19, 2020.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Last Friday, Gov. Abbott declared a state of public disaster due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday, the governor issued an executive order to close all Texas schools through April 3, 2020, including all Texas public and private K-12 and higher education institutions. The order, which is effective at midnight tonight, also requires the closure of gyms, dine-in restaurants, and bars, restricts nursing home visits, and limits gatherings to fewer than 10 people. In a virtual town hall yesterday evening featuring Gov. Abbott and several other state officials, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath indicated that school closures beyond April 3 will be determined in the coming weeks as the coronavirus crisis evolves.

The executive order follows a decision by the governor earlier this week to cancel STAAR assessments for this year. Many other states have taken the same action and have implored the the Department of Education to cancel federal assessment-related accountability requirements for this year. In a press release today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated that federal testing requirements will be waived, following a “proper request” from states. Read more about the announcement in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath speaks at town hall, March 19, 2020.

The closure of Texas schools and cancellation of STAAR tests have prompted frequent communication from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In his segment during the governor’s town hall last night, Commissioner Morath reiterated the information related to the STAAR tests and school meals provided on TEA’s coronavirus resource page. Namely, without the STAAR and end-of-course (EOC) exams, school districts will use local measures to determine promotion and graduation decisions. Additionally, the state has just launched a new “meal finder” tool to help parents find the locations of meals as provided by school districts.

For educators and school district leaders looking for guidance on continuing to provide instruction despite the closure of schools, TEA today issued a set of new tools, including planning checklists and resources to help ensure students have Internet access at home. Other recent guidance from TEA has reminded school officials that continued funding during closure is dependent on students receiving instructional support even when they are unable to physically attend school.

As reported earlier this week on the Teach the Vote blog, in Washington, D.C. President Trump signed the second coronavirus bill, named the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Included in the bill is flexibility to allow schools that have closed due to COVID-19 to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. In Texas and across the nation, school leaders and educators await further changes that may be included in a third coronavirus bill, with a proposal introduced today by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The bill is expected to contain a three-month suspension on federal student loan payments and interest, as well as a provision that grants Secretary DeVos authority to waive any part of federal education law for one year (except certain civil rights laws).

For more on state and federal initiatives this week regarding the coronavirus, see this blog post by the ATPE lobby team. Visit ATPE’s frequently-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for expert answers and resources during this unique time. Also, watch for updates from the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and via our Twitter account as more regulatory developments occur.


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, Gov. Abbott announced local political subdivisions — such as city councils, county courts, and school boards — are permitted to postpone their May 2 local elections until November 3, 2020. The May 2 municipal elections are separate from the primary runoff elections, which at this point are still set to be held on May 26, 2020. Amid pressure to postpone the runoffs or expand options for early voting and the use of mail-in ballots, Gov. Abbott stated during his March 19 town hall that party leaders have been discussing options and that the state would be announcing more about the runoffs very soon, potentially as early as today.

In the meantime, with county and senatorial district party conventions originally scheduled to take place this weekend, the state Democratic and Republican parties have offered suggestions to their voters on how to keep up with the latest announcements about schedule changes. The Texas Democratic Party is asking voters not to attend county conventions and instead fill out an online form indicating interest in attending the state convention and presidential voting preferences.

The Texas Republican Party shared an update for its voters following last night’s town hall meeting and noted that county party leaders were making individual decisions about cancellation or postponement of their conventions this weekend. According to the message, Republican voters can email convention@texasgop.org or text the word “CONVENTION” to 72000 to receive contact information for their county and notices about conventions.

Read more about what’s going on regarding Texas elections in yesterday’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. As always, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com for election resources created especially for educators, and use our features here on Teach the Vote to learn more about the candidates.


As of this week, over 11 million people living in America filled out the 2020 Census. Census counts determine many important streams of funding, such as for roads, emergency services, and public education. Your response to the census is as crucial as helping to spread the word to others. For census FAQs and information on how coronavirus is impacting this very important data collection, check out this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


To slow the spread of COVID-19, schools all over the country are experiencing extended closures while many employers have instituted work-from-home policies. As schools try to continue instruction and learning for students from afar, parents and guardians are finding themselves thrown into a new and not-so-easy profession: teaching. Discovering how difficult it is to teach just a few kids (let alone a class of 22+), some parents have taken to social media to affirm that teaching is the work of heroes and that teachers should be paid more. For a little levity this afternoon, check out some of the best tweets we’ve seen lately, including one from award-winning popular tv producer Shonda Rimes:


 

 


Feds announce availability of student testing waivers

The U.S. Department of Education today signaled its willingness to waive federal testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year for students who are impacted by school closures due to the coronavirus outbreak. According to its March 20 press release, the Education Department will waive the requirements for any state that submits a “proper request.” Texas already announced it was waiving state requirements for STAAR testing for the 2019-20 school year and seeking a federal waiver, and today’s announcement by the federal government supports this decision.

According to additional TEA guidance released this week, STAAR assessments in grades 3 through 8 planned or April, May, and June 2020 are cancelled. Student Success Initiative (SSI) requirements for promotion or retention are also waived for the current school year. Districts will be given discretion in deciding whether to promote students to the next grade, with consideration given to teacher recommendations, student grades, and other academic information.

STAAR End-of-Course (EOC) assessments are also waived for the 2019-20 school year. Districts will be allowed to utilize the individual graduation committee (IGC) process to determine graduation eligibility for all five STAAR EOC courses. On Thursday, the agency issued FAQ related to assessments, which you can find here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

At the federal level, additional relief is on the way for college and university students and those paying off student loans. The Education Department under direction from Secretary Betsy DeVos has suspended interest on all federally held student loans for the next 60 days. Additionally, students will be able to place their loans into forbearance for at least two months. According to the press release: “Secretary DeVos has directed all federal student loan servicers to grant an administrative forbearance to any borrower with a federally held loan who requests one. The forbearance will be in effect for a period of at least 60 days, beginning on March 13, 2020. To request this forbearance, borrowers should contact their loan servicer online or by phone. The Secretary has also authorized an automatic suspension of payments for any borrower more than 31 days delinquent as of March 13, 2020, or who becomes more than 31 days delinquent, essentially giving borrowers a safety net during the national emergency.”

Bloomberg News is also reporting that under federal stimulus legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Senate in response to the outbreak, students could defer student loan payments up to six months. The proposal would also protect existing federal student aid benefits for students who have to withdraw from classes due to the outbreak. As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, ATPE is closely watching the legislative proposals being considered by Congress and will report on any significant developments of interest to educators.

For additional resources for educators dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, visit ATPE’s FAQ and Resources page here.

Coronavirus and Texas education: Policy implications as of March 16

Here’s a rundown of the latest information we have so far regarding how the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is impacting the public education system in Texas. Governor Abbott announced Monday morning that the state is waiving STAAR testing for the 2019-2020 school year and is requesting a federal testing waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

The governor repeated this announcement in a Monday afternoon press conference on the latest state actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19. According to the governor, 57 Texans across 15 counties have confirmed cases of COVID-19. Little more than 200 people have been tested, and the state is waiting on the results of 300 more individuals. More than half of school districts are closed (a listing can be found here).

The announcement regarding STAAR testing came following calls to cancel the test from elected officials and stakeholders all over Texas over the past week. Many warned that lost instruction time, the unknowns introduced by distance learning required by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), questions over online testing, and the stress on students caused by coronavirus concerns would render any results unreliable for statistical and accountability-related purposes. You can read more on that in this breaking news post from earlier today.

According to reporting by the Texas Tribune, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told leaders over the weekend that schools could be closed through the end of the school year. Morath reportedly indicated those decisions would be left to local superintendents. Superintendents will also be allowed to administer the STAAR for their own purposes if they choose to do so, although it will not be required by the state. Specific guidance regarding students who would otherwise be required to take the STAAR in order to graduate or advance is expected later this week.

The College Board announced it is cancelling SAT tests scheduled for May 2, as well as makeup exams for the March 14 administration that were scheduled for March 28. The College Board stated it will work to provide additional testing opportunities as soon as feasible.

The TEA released an initial guidance and FAQ last week in which the agency announced schools seeking state aid and waivers due to the coronavirus would be required to provide some form of distance learning to students who remain home, regardless of whether those students are at home by choice or due to school closures.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released an updated nationwide guidance this weekend that recommends canceling or postponing gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. The guidance makes exceptions for schools, institutes of higher learning, and businesses. In a news conference Monday afternoon, the White House suggested limiting gatherings to ten people.

ATPE has compiled and is frequently updating a list of general information regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus, which we encourage you to check out here. We’ll continue to use Teach the Vote for updates to how Texas government and state agencies are handling the outbreak with respect to public education.

BREAKING: STAAR testing waived for 2019-20 school year

Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Monday that Texas is waiving STAAR testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Both the agency and the governor’s office shared the announcement via social media this morning:

TEA responded with the following statement:

State officials are also asking the U.S. Department of Education to waive federal testing requirements. Along with the announcement, the governor emphasized the agency’s efforts to help schools continue to deliver instruction to students who are at home because of coronavirus concerns or school closures, including students with special needs. Ensuring that students have access to meals has also been a top priority.

Late last week, as ATPE lobbyists shared on Twitter, we saw a growing, bipartisan push for cancelling the required state testing this year. Numerous elected officials, school superintendents, educators, parents, and non-profit associations from all parts of the state were asking state officials to suspend STAAR testing for the current school year.

It is very important to acknowledge that there are many unanswerable questions at this time about the decision to cancel STAAR tests this year, as well as questions about how long schools may be closed. Many aspect of the Texas public education system and numerous programs are tied to the tests. It is simply too early to know how this change will affect other programs, such as graduation requirements for students, school accountability ratings, and educator compensation plans that involve student test performance. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath is communicating daily with school district officials, and ATPE is monitoring these communications. We will continue share information and recommendations for educators as we learn more about the state’s response to this rapidly evolving crisis. We urge educators to keep in mind that the foremost concern and top priority is and should be the health and safety of students, public school employees, and our communities; all other considerations are secondary at this point.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on political and regulatory developments, and be sure to monitor ATPE’s coronoavirus FAQ page for the most comprehensive resources and tips on responding to the outbreak.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 6, 2020

Election day was this week on Tuesday, March 3, and Texas is abuzz with the results. The ATPE Governmental Relations team has the scoop on what happened at the polls and other education news. Also happening this weekend: don’t forget to move your clocks forward one hour on Sunday!



BREAKING NEWS: Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other city officials held a press conference this afternoon to announce the decision to cancel the massive SXSW conference slated to begin next week amid concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus. Conference organizers quickly issued a statement indicating that they are exploring options for rescheduling the event and/or changing some of the programs to an online format. The cancellation also includes SXSW EDU, in which ATPE was slated to participate. We will report additional details about the cancellation as we learn them.

Meanwhile, school officials in Texas have been closely watching developments with the coronavirus. During an interview with the Texas Tribune on Friday, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath repeated that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) continues to monitor the virus. TEA sent a memorandum to school administrators last Friday advising that the agency is monitoring media reports and information shared by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and working with other state agencies to provide guidance to local school districts. The memo included the following list of general practices that will help prevent the spread of the illness:

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • If you’ve not already gotten one, a flu shot is encouraged.

Today, TEA sent updated correspondence to school districts offering guidance on dealing with students and staff who may travel over the spring break. TEA also used today’s letter to urge schools to deep clean and disinfect their facilities over the break.

According to news reports, a school district in San Antonio undertook a major cleaning of one of its elementary schools after learning that an employee of the school also worked in a local mall where an infected person reportedly visited. A spokesperson for Northside ISD told KSAT that the district took the step in order to “get ahead of false information.” In the Houston area, where a 70-year old Fort Bend man was diagnosed with the first local case of coronavirus, Pearland ISD announced this week that it would suspend perfect attendance rules for the remainder of the school year, as well as exam exemption criteria. Fort Bend ISD has not canceled any classes, and Fort Bend County has set up a hotline with information regarding the virus. Read more in this article from the Houston Chronicle.


ELECTION UPDATE: The percentage of voters who turned out during Texas’ primary elections on “Super Tuesday” was slightly lower than in the 2016 primary, with over 4 million casting votes. The number of voters in each party’s primary was split nearly 50-50.

In many races, Tuesday’s primary winner will be unopposed or face weak opposition in the November general election in November. Other races are headed to a runoff, including those of four incumbents in the state legislature. Read more on the results here.

Even if you didn’t vote in this primary election, you may still be able to vote in a runoff to make your voice heard on May 26, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in a primary election runoff is April 27, 2020, and early voting will begin May 18. Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to view an election countdown, get text reminders, and find additional election-related resources for educators. Also, remember that you can view candidate profiles and responses to ATPE’s candidate survey here on Teach the Vote. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey.


On Wednesday, March 4, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the School Safety and Victims’ Services Research Survey, to be distributed to approximately 500,000 educators across Texas. Read more about the survey in this article from the Texas Tribune. A link to the survey, which is said to take 20 minutes to complete, will be sent directly to educators. The results will provide invaluable educator input regarding school safety and will inform policy at the state level. Be sure to weigh in on this important topic!

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also begun distribution of a voluntary survey aimed at high school counselors. School districts will receive the High School Counselor Survey and forward the link to their high school counselors in order to send information back to the TEA and the American Institutes for Research, “about the resources, activities, and tools that their teams use to assist students.” Read more about the High School Counselor survey from TEA here.


FEDERAL UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education has announced a delay in changes that would reduce funding for many rural schools. Hundreds of rural schools around the country were facing funding cuts pursuant to a new federal interpretation of eligibility criteria for Rural Low-Income Schools (RLIS) grants. The department announced this week that it would postpone the change for at least another year, following criticism Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos received from members of Congress. Read more in this Teach the Vote blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier reports that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is sharing examples of some new STAAR test questions. House Bill (HB) 3906 passed by the Texas legislature in 2019 eliminated the STAAR writing tests given in grades 4 and 7. However, this change won’t take effect until Sept. 1, 2021, which means the grades 4 and 7 writing assessments will stay the same until the 2021-22 school year. Instead of standalone writing assessments, writing content will be assessed in the reading and language arts STAAR tests, as discussed below.

Sample STAAR revising and editing question, grade 4 (Source: TEA)

TEA will begin field-testing revising and editing questions on the reading/language arts STAAR test as part of the Spring 2020 and Spring 2021 assessments. These items will not impact accountability. To help educators understand what these new test questions will look like, the agency has released sample test questions such as the one pictured here.


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath spoke Friday, March 6, at a live event hosted by the Texas Tribune and sponsored in part by ATPE. In an interview with the Texas Tribune‘s Evan Smith, Commissioner Morath touched on several topics, including the state’s preparedness for dealing with the coronavirus and implementation of House Bill (HB) 3. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes, staff lobbyists, and members of our marketing and communications department attended the event. During an audience Q&A portion of the interview, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter asked the commissioner about teacher preparation and certification in light of state laws that exempt many school districts and charter schools from the requirement to hire certified teachers. The the commissioner responded that he believes teachers should undergo “extraordinarily robust training.” Watch video of the full interview with Commissioner Morath here.


Another poll shows strong support for public education

On the heels of a voter survey conducted by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune regarding state funding for public education (republished on Teach the Vote here), the Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT) Foundation has also released a new statewide poll this week about Texans’ attitudes toward public education. Both polls show support for public schools and educators with a desire for increased funding of public education.

The RYHT Foundation poll found that 77 percent of Texans express trust and confidence in their teachers, and 70 percent believe that teacher pay is too low. The poll also showed that 60 percent of the Texans responding were concerned that our state’s standardized tests may not effectively measure student learning. Half the respondents said they were not confident that Texas’s “A through F” accountability grading system accurately represents school quality. The poll also asked respondents about the top challenges they believe teachers are facing, the biggest problems affecting the public schools in their communities, and what their feelings are about wraparound supports for students, such as mental health services.

In a press release from RYHT, Foundation President Shari Albright said, “We’re pleased to be the first organization in the country to commit to an annual statewide poll about public education issues.” Albright added, “We thought it important to provide this service to Texans on an annual basis, both to understand the challenges and help find ways to improve our public schools.”

Read complete results and additional information about the new RYHT Foundation poll here.

Commissioner presents SBOE with annual report

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath addressed the State Board of Education (SBOE) Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2019, as part of the board’s week-long January meeting. Commissioner Morath presented the 15-member body with the annual “state of education” report from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). View a copy of his presentation to the board here.

Texas SBOE meeting, Jan. 28, 2020

According to the agency, House Bill (HB) 3, the major school finance reform bill enacted in 2019, produced a $3.4 billion net increase in public education spending by the state. The report showed slight increases in STAAR scores and graduation rates, as well as a one percent decrease in college enrollment. Texas remains 42nd in the nation in 4th grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as well as 46th in 8th grade reading, 12th in 4th grade math, and 32nd in 8th grade math. Texas ranked 36th in per-pupil funding for the 2017-18 school year, which is consistent with long-term trends in the level at which Texas invests in public schools.

SBOE Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence) questioned the use of the NAEP to evaluate statewide performance. Maynard asked, “Is there a better evaluation at least for us, as a measure of how we’re doing overall?” Responding to a separate question about how Texas compares to other states, Morath suggested that ranking public school systems by the amount being spent is not a good determinant of school quality.

Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) noted that many teachers around the state have grown increasingly frustrated by administrative duties, testing, and other tasks that take up their time and reduce the amount of attention they are able to spend on teaching. Hardy suggested that TEA increase campus audits to ensure that schools are complying with rules intended to address this.

Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) pressed Commissioner Morath on new charter application rules that provide for the automatic approval of expansions of existing charters. The commissioner responded that there would be no automatic expansions, and conceded that language in the rules may need to be adjusted in order to avoid that perception.

The commissioner responded to questions regarding a readability study of the STAAR test ordered by the legislature last year. The mandate was the result of research showing that questions on the test were often written at a reading level above the grade level for which the test was intended. The recent readability study suggested the test was still misaligned, but Morath said the agency is making adjustments to the STAAR as a result of the study.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for additional updates as the SBOE continues its meetings this week.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 6, 2019

We hope you had a great Thanksgiving break. Here is this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team!


ELECTION UPDATE: A runoff election date of Jan. 28, 2020, has been set for special elections in House Districts 28, 100, and 148. If you live in one of those districts, you may vote in the runoff election regardless of whether or not you voted in the original special election on Nov. 5. Check to see if you are registered to vote here as the deadline to register for the special election runoff is Dec. 29, 2019. Early voting in these three districts begins Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

If you do not live in one of the House districts listed above, your next opportunity to vote will be the Texas primary elections on March 3, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in one of the primaries is Feb. 3, 2020! Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to get involved, find activities you can do to drive more participation in elections, and sign up for voting updates.

The candidate filing period for those seeking a place on the ballot in 2020 opened last month and will end on Monday. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote in the coming weeks as we update our website to include profiles of all the candidates vying for seats in the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education. Read more election news in this week’s election roundup post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Do you know how your state representative or senator voted on education bills this past legislative session? ATPE’s lobbyists have carefully hand-picked key education votes from the 86th legislative session and uploaded them to all state legislators’ profiles on our Teach the Vote website for your review.

This collection of recorded votes aims to help Texans find out how their own lawmakers voted on major public education issues and ATPE’s legislative priorities in 2019. Use our search page to gain insight into incumbents’ views on public education. Share the information with your friends and family, too, to help inform decisions at the polls during the critical 2020 election cycle. Also, read our recent blog posts to learn more about which education bills are featured and takeaways for using the information contained in our record votes compilation.


Do you have something to say about public education in Texas? Tell us about it in our short, three-question survey. This survey is meant to gather ATPE members’ opinions on education issues, including results of the last legislative session. Don’t worry if you didn’t follow the session too closely, as the ATPE lobby team still wants to hear from you so that we can best represent your voice at the Texas Capitol. Take our “Your Voice” survey on ATPE’s Advocacy Central. Call the ATPE Member Services department at (800) 777-2873 if you’ve forgotten your password for logging into Advocacy Central.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has released another video in its “HB 3 in 30” series explaining the many aspects of the 86th Legislature’s omnibus school finance bill House Bill (HB) 3.

This week’s video explains the new, optional, Mentor Program Allotment which provides funding for districts who have, or implement, a mentor program that meet certain programmatic requirements. ATPE has long advocated for state funded mentoring programs for all new teachers as a way to curb the high cost of teacher turnover as well as support and improve teachers and teaching practice.

Find all of the HB 3 in 30 videos here, along with related presentations.


On Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held its final meeting of the year. The board discussed several items, including data from the new teacher and principal surveys, the addition of educational aide to the list of certificates high school students can obtain, and other changes to implement numerous bills from recent legislative sessions. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier provided testimony during the meeting asking the board to create a pathway for Master Reading Teachers to retain their teaching assignments once their Legacy Master Teacher certificates expire under HB 3. Look for a post by Andrea in the coming days about today’s SBEC meeting and watch video of her testimony here (located at the 41:00 mark on the archived broadcast).


Part one of the STAAR readability study mandated by House Bill 3 was released on Dec. 2, 2019. The study was conducted by the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin. The 30-page report generally found that STAAR test passages are mostly at an appropriate level of readability, but was inconclusive regarding if individual questions were “readable” at grade-level or below. Additionally, the study leaves many questions unanswered regarding the measures used to determine readability. Read an analysis of the report by ATPE lobbyist Andrea Chevalier here.

STAAR readability study, part one, released

Yesterday, the University of Texas at Austin Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk released part one of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) readability study required by the 86th Legislature’s House Bill (HB) 3. The mandated study follows numerous reports that STAAR test items were above the reading level of students taking the test, such as this peer-reviewed study by Texas A&M University-Commerce researchers.

Here are the three main questions of the study and the answers gathered by its authors:

Question 1: Are the items on the 2019 STAAR tests (and the tests as a whole) aligned to grade-level Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)?

Answer: The TEKS that each test item is precoded to match are mostly in alignment. Across all 17 tests analyzed, eight questions were not in alignment, which means that the question did not adequately assess the standards it was meant to address. As for the test as a whole, all questions were found to be in alignment with grade-level TEKS.

Question 2: Are the items on the tests at a grade-appropriate readability level?

Answer: Due to a lack of research in the area, the authors used several different methods to try to measure the readability of each test item. For each method, the researchers obtained different results, which meant that none of the methods were reliable indicators of readability. Therefore, the study is inconclusive about the grade-level readability of test items and provides no further insight in this area. Because parents and advocates have expressed concerns with the readability of mathematics test items, this lack of findings is rather unsatisfying.

Question 3: Are the passages on the reading and writing tests at a grade-appropriate readability level?

Answer: The authors developed their own “test” to determine if a passage was grade-level appropriate in readability. In order to pass the test, each passage had to meet two out of three measures: sentence length and difficulty, syntactic simplicity or “syntax,” and vocabulary load or “narrativity.” For syntax and narrativity, the authors used a measure called “Coh-Metrix” that can either be based on English/Language Arts (ELA) norms or social studies norms, depending on the genre of the text.

While many passages met grade-level for sentence length/difficulty and syntax, only 31% of passages fell within or below the specified grade band for narrativity when using the ELA norms. However, because each passage only had to meet two out of the three criteria, 86% of writing and reading passages were found to be grade-appropriate. Additionally, the authors stipulate that the passages are more of the informational genre and thus could be evaluated using the social studies norms, which produces higher readability results, yet still comparatively low in the narrativity index.

What’s next?

This study leaves many questions unanswered. Is it acceptable that some test items are not correctly aligned to the TEKS? Are the STAAR test items, such as those on the mathematics tests, at the appropriate readability level? Is the 2/3 criteria test valid when it allows for narrativity to slip through the cracks? Is it good practice to allow for the majority of a test to use vocabulary that is outside the scope of commonly used language for a particular grade level?

The second part of this legislatively mandated study should surface by February 1, 2020. Stay tuned to ATPE’s Teach the Vote as we track the implementation of this important provision in HB 3. Read more about changes to student testing that resulted from the 2019 legislative session here and here on our blog.

Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part I

Last week on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE published a series of voting records for all Texas state lawmakers, analyzing their actions taken on significant education-related legislation. This blog post is Part I of a two-part feature on the record votes. Here, we’re taking a closer look at how the ATPE lobby team analyzed and chose the record votes that are featured on the legislators’ profiles.

Which bills are featured in the 2019 legislative voting records on Teach the Vote, and why were they chosen?

Without question, the most significant bill debated and ultimately passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year was House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). This major school finance and public education reform bill, deemed the top priority of the session, resulted in $6.5 billion in increased funding for public education and $5 billion for property tax relief. ATPE’s lobbyists have written extensively about the omnibus bill here on our Teach the Vote blog, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also dedicated a set of online resources to helping Texans understand the many components of the bill. With its high profile, HB 3 figures prominently in the 2019 record votes compiled by ATPE. We’ve selected both the House’s and Senate’s votes on HB 3 on “third reading” as the first record vote featured in this year’s list for Teach the Vote.

There are also a few votes on floor amendments to HB 3 that made our list this year. On the House side, we’ve provided representatives’ votes on House Floor Amendment #15 to HB 3, which dealt with charter school transparency and efficiency. The amendment by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), which passed and was incorporated into the House’s version of HB 3 but later stripped out by the Senate, requires charter schools to undergo an audit of their fiscal management. The Bailes amendment would have required such an audit to be conducted before a charter could expand or open new campuses, and it also called for charter schools to share the results of those audits publicly on their websites.

For senators, we similarly tracked their votes on three amendments to HB 3:

  • Senate Floor Amendment #8 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) attempted to remove from the Senate’s version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay program that ATPE and most of the education community opposed.
  • Senate Floor Amendment #30 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) also failed to pass but aimed to provide a guaranteed pay raise for all professional public school employees. While teacher pay was another high-profile issue debated throughout the 2019 legislative session, most discussions about pay raises at that point in the session had been limited to classroom teachers and librarians.
  • Also, Senate Floor Amendment #66 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) was an unsuccessful attempt to add language to the Senate’s version of HB 3 to ensure that state standardized tests were written at the appropriate grade level. Testing was also a subject of great importance to the education community during the legislative session, particularly after studies found that certain test questions on the STAAR test had been written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. Although the Menendez floor amendment did not get approved by the Senate, another bill passed during the 2019 legislative session (HB 3906) requires a study of STAAR readability, and results of that study should be released beginning in December.

HB 3 ultimately included some additional funding for increasing educator compensation, but it was not the only bill pertaining to teacher pay that lawmakers debated in 2019. Early in the session, the Senate rallied behind Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) pledged would be one of the first bills passed by the full Senate in 2019. Although SB 3 was later rejected in favor of the alternative compensation-related language in HB 3, we’ve included the Senate’s third reading vote on SB 3 in our list of record votes due to its early significance.

ATPE also supported a stand-alone bill in 2019 that was designed to fund and strengthen mentoring programs for teachers. The House’s third reading vote on HB 102 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) made our list of record votes this year. HB 102 did not get heard in the Senate, but its language was later incorporated into HB 3.

Another piece of legislation related to educator quality produced one of the record votes published on Teach the Vote this year. The House voted to approve HB 1276 by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) on third reading. HB 1276 was designed to prevent elementary grade students from being assigned for two consecutive school years to teachers who had less than one year of teaching experience or teachers who were not certified in the subject being taught as part of the foundation curriculum. Exceptions would have been provided under HB 1276 for new transfer students and for students whose parent or guardian consents to the non-compliant placement. Also, the bill would not have applied to school districts serving fewer than 5,000 students, those exempted under the District of Innovation (DOI) law, or those districts that received a hardship waiver from the commissioner of education. Unfortunately, this ATPE-supported bill did not get heard in the Senate.

School safety was another high priority issue debated during the 2019 legislative session. The key piece of legislation on keeping schools safe was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), aimed at driving funding to implement school safety improvements and provide mental health resources. We’ve featured on our website the third reading vote taken on this bill in both the House and Senate chambers. Also on our list is the House’s treatment of House Floor Amendment #8 by Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) to SB 11, aimed at improving mental health support by requiring the state to identify regional resources that schools could use to address their students’ mental health needs. Legislators were considering a number of different measures pertaining to mental health resources in the context of the debate about school safety. Particularly in the House, some lawmakers were openly skeptical of efforts to link students with outside mental health professionals, worried about privacy concerns, and generally opposed to perceived government overreach. The controversy surrounding those issues had seemingly killed another high-priority bill aimed at addressing mental health earlier on the same evening that SB 11 was being debated. House leaders used Rep. Allison’s floor amendment as a vehicle for resurrecting the lost bill. Thus, Allison’s original amendment to SB 11 passed, was reconsidered, got amended to include language from the other mental health bill that had already been voted down, and then Floor Amendment #8 passed again. We provided data on both votes approving Floor Amendment #8 since there were some representatives who opted to change their position on the Allison amendment after it was expanded.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also garnered attention during the 2019 session and was an ATPE legislative priority. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which increased the contribution rates for the TRS pension fund. ATPE included the third reading votes on this bill taken by both the House and Senate among our record votes compilation. The legislature’s passage of SB 12 resulted in immediate actuarial solvency for the fund, which made it possible for TRS to issue a one-time 13th check to retirees in Sept. 2019. Read more about the TRS bill here.

Another ATPE legislative priority for 2019 was opposing vouchers and stopping the privatization of public schools in any form. Few voucher bills were considered this session, but the full Senate did take a vote on Sen. Taylor’s SB 1455, which we included on our list of record votes. The bill would have expanded full-time virtual schools and created a “virtual voucher.” Despite passing the Senate, SB 1455 did not make it out of a committee on the House side.

The House also took a record vote on HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), which is included on our list. That bill produced one of the most dramatic debates but did not garner enough votes to pass the House. HB 1133 would have weakened the existing 22:1 cap on elementary school class sizes by moving to a campus-wide, grade-level average. Many ATPE members reached out to their legislators in opposition to this bill, which would have allowed class sizes in the lower grades to dramatically expand.

Finally, there are a few record votes on our list this year that pertain to efforts to restrict legislative advocacy by school districts or dissuade educators from being politically active. One such bill was SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), which the Senate voted to approve on third reading but the House left pending in committee. ATPE staunchly opposed SB 1569, which would have restricted educators’ First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, limited their ability to teach students about elections, and unreasonably subjected educators to criminal penalties. Another troubling bill was SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which tried to prohibit school districts and other local governmental entities from funding legislative advocacy efforts or paying membership dues to organizations that engage in legislative advocacy. SB 29 made our record votes list in two places. First, the Senate voted to approve the bill on third reading. Later, the House voted the bill down. Interestingly, the vote to defeat SB 29 on the House floor became even more significant after the legislative session ended, when certain Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill were seemingly targeted for retribution by their own party leadership in a taped discussion between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the head of the controversial dark money group, Empower Texans. The scandal resulted in Bonnen’s announcing that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for election of a new speaker when the 2021 legislative session convenes.

In any legislative session, there are limited votes taken on the record, offering relatively few options for us to showcase how individual legislators voted on education-related bills. However, we believe the votes listed above offer an informative glimpse into the treatment of public education by the 86th Texas Legislature, and we invite you to check out how your legislators voted by looking them up on our search page here on Teach the Vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for Part II of this blog feature where the ATPE lobbyists will explain more about the usefulness and limitations of record votes in general.