Tag Archives: standardized testing

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 3, 2020

This week, we celebrated the anniversary of the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified July 1, 1971. Since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, now is the perfect time to celebrate with all the young people in your life as you make plans to early vote in the primary runoffs. Here is our wrap-up of this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team. We wish you a safe and relaxing Independence Day weekend!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott made headlines with an executive order requiring that Texans wear masks in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases. There are a few exceptions to the mask order, including for children under 10 years old, those with a medical condition that prevents wearing a mask, and in some specified circumstances such as driving. Violating the order is punishable by fine, but jail time for violations is prohibited. See the full executive order with a list of exceptions and exempted counties here. Abbott also reduced the limits of most allowed gatherings from 100 to 10 people. Both changes take effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday, July 3, 2020.

According to an article by the Texas Tribune republished here on our blog, Gov. Abbott gave an interview on Thursday afternoon in which he speculated about restarting schools this fall. ““If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program,” the governor is reported as saying, despite giving earlier assurances that it would be safe for schools to reopen soon. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to provide school districts with health and safety guidance needed to begin the new school year. The agency posted a public health document last week only briefly before quickly pulling it down and calling it a working draft.

ATPE has shared its own Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines to the state and districts, urging them to address the safety concerns of school staff, students, and parents well ahead of a return to in-person classes, especially with the current spike in Texas coronavirus cases. Our recommendations urge TEA to release COVID-19 reopening guidelines and require that prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year, each school district disseminate a local policy describing health and safety measures it will take to mitigate and respond to the threat of COVID-19. ATPE believes TEA should require districts to involve non-administrative, campus-level staff and parents as they develop such policies. Districts should promptly notify employees and parents of their policy, and they must also be ready to adjust their policy should pandemic conditions change. We also provided a list of other considerations for districts to consider as they develop their policy, which include accommodating varying levels of risk factors among their student and staff populations, minimizing person-to-person contact, planning for special populations, adjusting staff  leave policies as necessary, and addressing child care needs of their staff, especially since many districts are now contemplating staggered student schedules or mandatory remote instructional days.

Please visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for news and answers to educators’ commonly asked questions amid the rapid developments during this pandemic. Many of the categories of resources on the TEA Coronavirus Support Page were also updated this week, including an Operation Connectivity Survey, English learner guidance, waivers, finance, and grants (information on synchronous and asynchronous instruction), crisis code reporting results, July 4 public health resources, and child nutrition. Gov. Abbott also extended the P-EBT application deadline to July 31.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election started this Monday. Polls are closed today for the holiday, but early voting will continue through July 10. Election day is July 14, but we highly recommend you early vote in order to avoid crowds and lines. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier voted early and documented her experience here on our blog with tips to prepare for a safe trip to the polls.

The education-focused nonprofit organization Raise Your Hand Texas is holding two virtual forums for runoff candidates next week (see below). If you’re not attending the ATPE Summit next week, find more information and submit questions for the candidate forums here.

  • Texas Senate District 19 (San Antonio to Big Bend area) – Tuesday, July 7 at 1:00 p.m. (CDT)
  • Texas House District 26 (Houston/Sugar Land area) – Thursday, July 9, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (CDT)

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating many challenges for our public education system that will be long-lasting and require a commitment of support from our elected officials. Voting is the best way to influence laws and policies in Texas that will affect your profession, your schools, and your students. Find a list of polling places where you can vote here. Generate a personalized sample ballot here. Review candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. Stay safe, Texas voters!


FEDERAL UPDATE: On Wednesday, July 1, the U.S. Department of Education officially published a final interim rule that states how public school districts must spend their CARES Act federal emergency funds for equitable services offered to private schools. The rule became effective immediately upon being published, but it is open for public comment through July 31, 2020. TEA held an update training session on Thursday in light of the changes; expect to find the training recording on TEA’s Grant Compliance and Administration YouTube playlist here. The new rule gives districts two options – spend CARES Act funds only on Title I schools and follow the longstanding interpretation of equitable services under federal law, or spend CARES Act funds on all schools and be held to the questionable interpretation of the equitable services law advanced by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s post on the rule from last week for more information.

DeVos also announced final rules that impact the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program, which provides up to $4,000 a year to college students who are taking certain courses in preparation to teach, so long as they continually certify that they meet certain requirements when they become teachers, such as teaching in a low-income school. If recipients do not continue to meet the requirements, the grant is converted to a loan. As reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2015, many TEACH Grant recipients had their grants converted to loans due to confusion over the requirements. The new rules change the department’s practices to expand how recipients can fulfill their service obligation, simplify the employment certification requirements, and allow recipients whose grants have been converted to loans to request a reconversion, among other provisions. Read a fact sheet on the rules here.


This week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter set the record straight on erroneous claims that teachers can temporarily retire due to the pandemic. The “temporary retirement” myth was mentioned in a news story following a conference call national teacher union affiliates held with Texas reporters last week. The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) has made it clear that there is no such option for “temporary” retirement, explaining that any teacher who retires and then returns to employment will be held to a fixed annuity amount as of their retirement date. There are a number of restrictions on early retirement that educators should consider. Read retirement facts in this blog post by Exter.


New data show student engagement declined when the pandemic forced schools to close this spring. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released crisis code reporting data this week, which includes crisis code reporting on student “engagement” and indicates that more than 600,000 students (about 11% of the student population) had inconsistent or no contact with their teachers or administrators. ATPE’s 2020 Membership Survey provided even more concerning data related to engagement, as just over 65% of our survey respondents reported that their students were less engaged during virtual learning. Moving forward, TEA and school districts will need to prioritize data collection and planning that works towards eliminating barriers students faced when attempting remote learning this spring, which goes far beyond access to Internet and devices. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to address several agenda items, including revision of physical education and health TEKS, which garnered over 12 hours of virtual testimony on Monday. Votes on proposed revisions to the curriculum standards will not occur until a future meeting of the board.

On Tuesday morning, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath appeared before the board during its virtual meeting and fielded questions from SBOE members on topics such as testing and how teachers would be protected against COVID-19 risks when schools reopen. The commissioner said no decision has been made yet as to whether Texas will seek a federal waiver of testing and accountability requirements like it did during the spring when schools were forced to close. Read a summary of Morath’s comments to the board in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

The SBOE committees’ work on Wednesday was largely uneventful, although the Committee on Instruction did amend an agenda item to keep computer science as a required high school course. On Thursday, the full board had a lengthy discussion about increasing the capacity of the charter school bond guarantee program by 20%. Upon a motion by Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), the board voted 5-9 in favor of maintaining the increase. The board moved forward with ease on their other agenda items.


An accurate count for Texas in the 2020 U.S. Census is essential for adequate funding of public schools and other services that will be sorely needed in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The Census Bureau has launched a self-response rates map, showing Texas currently ranks 40th and is tied with Arkansas. Rankings by county and city are also available, creating the perfect opportunity for some friendly competition! Congratulations to Mountain City, Texas and Fort Bend County for the highest census completion rates in Texas!

Find a Census response rate competition toolkit here, and keep spreading the word on social media and in other communications with family, friends, and the community about the importance of filling out the census questionnaire.

Recapping education changes due to the coronavirus

Two months have passed since Austin’s cancellation of the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival became national news as one of the first major events in the country called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also one of the first developments that made many of us wonder how serious the novel coronavirus was. As school districts embarked on their spring breaks, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) began to send out notices advising deep cleaning of school facilities, heightened hygiene practices, and protocols for students and families who might be traveling on vacation. In an interview with the Texas Tribune on March 6, 2020, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath jokingly advised students not to go around licking doorknobs.

Since this preliminary incubation phase (to borrow a term from the virus world), we’ve witnessed a barrage of press conferences, executive orders closing school facilities through the end of the school year, and a triage-like approach to maintaining educational services. New information surfaces daily amid an ever-developing curve of cases, while educators work speedily to learn and implement effective distance learning methods. To help you navigate everything that has happened, the ATPE lobby team offers a recap of the coronavirus-related education developments so far in this blog post, broken down into these categories:


State action in response to the pandemic

On March 13, 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of public disaster in Texas — the same day President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency. At the time, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath erred on the side of local control in letting school districts decide whether or not they wanted to extend their spring breaks or temporarily close down their facilities. Among many worries, school administrators struggled with how they would feed students who relied on school meals.

At a time when over half of Texas school districts had closed and under pressure from both Democratic and Republican legislators, Gov. Abbott agreed on March 16 to cancel this year’s administration of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests. The College Board also cancelled March and May test administrations and has since announced plans to offer the SAT test starting in August. The College Board also is offering online Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

Around the time of these events, TEA launched a new section of its website containing FAQs and guidance aiming to provide some degree of certainty to educators. This site has grown to include links to other web pages that offer meal locations for students and home learning resources. ATPE also launched its own Coronavirus FAQ and Resources web page for educators in early March.

Gov. Abbott explained a new coronavirus executive order during a press conference with other state leaders, March 31, 2020.

On March 19, Gov. Abbott announced the physical closure of schools, gyms, bars, and restaurants through April 3, which included all Texas public and private K-12 and higher education institutions. This order was extended by another month on March 31, when Abbott issued a more restrictive executive order that closed school buildings across Texas until May 4. The order also followed federal guidelines for “essential workers.” Included within the federal definition of essential workers were “Educators supporting public and private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities for purposes of facilitating distance learning or performing other essential functions.” TEA reminded school officials that continued funding during closure of their campuses would be dependent on students receiving instructional support even when they are unable to physically attend school.

On April 17, the governor extended school facility closures through the end of the academic year and announced preliminary plans for reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing designs for reopening various businesses, Abbott stated that schools would remain physically closed through the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, although teachers could still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). TEA quickly issued its guidance on entering school buildings for more information.

On April 27, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a phased plan to reopen Texas businesses, starting May 1 with limited capacity at malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries. Establishments are currently limited to 25% occupancy, although those in counties with five or fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases are allowed up to 50% occupancy. Abbott stated that after two weeks, if there has not been a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the state will move into its next phase, loosening restrictions and opening hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars. However, Abbott on May 5 announced that wedding venues, salons, barbershops, and pools may reopen on May 8, with gyms being allowed to open with reduced occupancy on May 18. The state has yet to allow bars to reopen.

State regulatory entities such as the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), State Board of Education (SBOE), and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) have moved to online meeting platforms to continue fulfilling their duties. The SBOE met via video-conference in mid-April to take up an abbreviated agenda, which included a discussion of funding concerns related to the pandemic. The TRS Board of Trustees also met in mid-April for a truncated online meeting that included a discussion of delaying office space changes until the real estate market stabilizes. TRS was one of the first state bodies to change its practices at the beginning of the pandemic by restricting in-person visits and moving its staff to a tele-working environment. The SBEC board met May 1 to discuss a variety of issues, including the impact of COVID-19 on current and future educators.

Elections have also been affected by the pandemic. Most local elections, including a number of school board races around the state, originally slated for May 2, 2020, were postponed to November. The runoff elections for the Texas primaries have also been postponed from May to July 14, 2020.


Federal action in response to the pandemic

On March 13, President Trump declared a national state of emergency. Five days later, he signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which was the second coronavirus-related aid bill passed by Congress. (The first coronavirus bill signed by the president was a supplemental appropriations package that sent $8.3 billion to federal agencies to promote their work in combating the developing coronavirus crisis in America.) The higher profile FFCRA included, among other provisions, expanded paid sick/family leave and authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to waive federal provisions regarding the National School Lunch Program, allowing schools to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. Read ATPE’s information about the FFCRA here.

On March 27, Congress passed and the president signed a third coronavirus aid package. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act contains $13.5 billion in funding for K-12 education, plus additional amounts for child nutrition and child care. The bill also included temporary deferment on payments and interest for federal student loans and  a cash assistance program, which has begun to deliver one-time direct payments to qualifying individuals and families. Read ATPE’s information about the CARES Act relief for individuals here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at a White House press conference in March 2020.

The CARES Act also authorized the U.S. Secretary of Education to provide flexibility to states in the form of waivers of various federal laws, such as student testing and accountability requirements. CARES also provides $3 billion in relief through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. Read more about the new funding available to Texas under this provision in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The additional $13.5 billion in dedicated education funding under the CARES Act has yet to be distributed.

On April 27, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced that it will use some of the funding approved by Congress through the CARES Act for competitive grants to states that may use the money for private school vouchers. The $180 million “Rethink K-12 Education Models” or “REM” grant would be available for implementation of voucher programs, statewide virtual learning, or other models of remote learning. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a vocal proponent of vouchers, had previously said her department would urge Congress to approve a form of voucher termed a “microgrant,” but many lawmakers were surprised by her decision to preemptively use the CARES Act funding, intended to provide coronavirus relief, in this manner. Read more about the voucher proposal in this blog post from the ATPE lobby team. Working with our federal lobby team in Washington, D.C., ATPE continues to address this issue with Texas’ Congressional delegation.

A fourth coronavirus aid package was approved by Congress and signed by the president on April 24. Known as the “Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act,” this $484 billion dollar package is focused on loans for small businesses, with other much smaller pots of money for hospitals and increased virus testing. More federal legislation is anticipated in the coming months, which ATPE hopes will include additional funding related to public education.


Waivers are everywhere

At both the state and federal level, waivers have been the preferred method of responding to the challenges facing education during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Waivers are quick, easy, and in some cases can provide automatic relief from mandates that may make an already tough situation tougher. For instance, thanks to a waiver granted to Texas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parents can pick up meals from ISDs for their children without the children being present. Gov. Abbott also issued several waivers related to educator preparation that will assist candidates in moving forward with their careers while testing centers are closed. More long-term fixes such as funding take longer to roll out, and remedies that require state legislation will have to wait until Texas’ next legislative session in 2021, absent a special session being called by the governor.

TEA has compiled a list of all state and federal waivers. Some waivers don’t require any action by school districts or individuals, as they apply automatically. Others require documentation. For instance, in order to avoid being penalized financially for missed school days, districts must attest that they are providing off-campus instruction to the best of their ability and submit supporting documentation. Additionally, districts must proactively request to waive educator, principal, and administrator appraisals. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for statewide action to suspend appraisals this year for all districts. (See ATPE’s press release here.)

Among the most popular statewide waivers is the assessment and accountability waiver, provided first by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and subsequently (in a streamlined fashion) as part of the CARES Act. Texas received approval from ED that freed our state from student assessment and accountability requirements under federal law. As a result, all districts will officially receive a rating of “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-20 school year, and the list of schools previously identified for improvement will essentially freeze in place.

The federal government is also offering a spending flexibility waiver that allows states to move money around as they anticipate new expenditures and potential shortfalls. For instance, under this waiver, school districts could carry over as much Title I money from this school year to the next as necessary, spend more Title IV money on technology infrastructure, spend federal funds over a longer period of time, and take advantage of a broader definition of professional development that allows funds to be used on remote instruction training. On April 10, Texas received approval from ED for these waivers and two other waivers that will allow districts to spend federal funds more readily.

Secretary DeVos announced on April 27 that ED would not seek additional waiver authority from Congress for the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Additionally, the Department is not requesting further waiver authority from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but it is requesting various waivers under other federal education statutes such as the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the IDEA, and the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act that mostly pertain to flexibility in using federal funds. The CARES Act required DeVos to notify Congress 30 days after its passage on any additional requests for waiver authority.


Changes to educators’ work

COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. ATPE’s lobbyists previously reported on uncertainty around educator preparation and certification procedures during the pandemic since certification tests were suspended through April 30, 2020. TEA has posted information about certification testing and announced that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Solving this issue for those in other situations will likely require rulemaking by SBEC and potential legislation during the next legislative session.

TEA’s educator support page features guidance for individuals pursuing educator certification, including details on a waiver from Gov. Abbott that allows certain educator certification candidates to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. If they haven’t already, these candidates will have to complete the fingerprinting process, which — while safer for students — will also create some hiccups as many fingerprinting locations are closed or offering limited appointments. Certification candidates will also have to pay the probationary certificate fee now, plus the standard certificate fee later on when they pass the required examinations. Additionally, candidates must meet all requirements for initial certification, which are outlined in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) Chapter 230, Subchapter B, General Requirements (230.11), with the exception of passing the certification exam. These requirements include having a bachelor’s degree and submitting to a criminal history review. Out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension.

On April 2, ATPE sent a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for a statewide suspension of educator appraisals for the 2019-20 school year in light of the closure of school facilities and resulting disruptions to normal classroom instructional practices. Citing the inability to conduct classroom observations, fears of adverse employment actions, and the high stakes attached to teacher evaluations, ATPE urged the commissioner to issue a statewide moratorium rather than allowing evaluations to be conducted in an inconsistent manner at each district’s discretion.

Commissioner Morath wrote a response to our letter on April 23, which was not transmitted to ATPE until May 7. In his reply, Morath declined to issue a statewide order, noting that TEA has offered schools districts opportunities to apply for waivers of certain requirements pertaining to evaluations. TEA posted guidance documents in late April advising that school districts may apply for waivers of educator evaluation requirements found in Sections 21.351, 21.352, 21.354 and 21.3541 of the Texas Education Code, plus related commissioner’s rules in Title 19, Chapter 150 of the Texas Administrative Code, if the districts find that they are unable to complete aspects of the appraisal process.”The decision to pursue waivers of appraisal requirements is strictly a local decision,” the commissioner wrote in his letter to ATPE.

School districts around the state have taken varying approaches to the issue of evaluating their staff during this crisis, and ATPE maintains that educator appraisals conducted in an incomplete or truncated manner are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions.


The Texas budget

On April 7, 2020, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sat down (virtually) with Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey, to confirm that Texas is in a recession. Hegar said that Texas will be able to meet current budget obligations through August 31, 2021, despite the recession.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar was interviewed by the Texas Tribune, April 7, 2020.

On May 1, Hegar announced that state sales tax revenue totaled $2.58 billion in April, which is 9.3 percent less than the $2.8 billion brought in by the state in April 2019, the steepest decline since January 2010. In the summer, Hegar will release an updated revenue estimate that will likely be several billion dollars less. Because the state pumped billions into education during the last legislative session, educators worry that the continued funding commitment might be hard to maintain.

In light of these budget concerns, ATPE joined 17 other organizations calling on Commissioner Morath to place a moratorium on charter school expansion during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because charters cannot levy taxes, the state picks up the tab in order to fully fund every charter school while reducing the amount of funding available to local school districts. ATPE believes the expansion of charter enrollment during a pandemic with extremely uncertain financial outcomes would be fiscally irresponsible. In fact, the 94 charter expansion amendments currently on file with TEA could cost the state an additional $90 million per year if approved, money that may be sorely needed to shore up budgets of existing public schools across the state.


The road ahead

What lies ahead for Texas education is murky. Many graduation ceremonies this spring will be virtual, socially distanced, and involve a lot of honking car processionals. We still don’t know what a return to school in the fall will look like, or even if there will be a physical return at all should the virus rebound. Will students start back to school earlier in the summer? Will social distancing guidelines still be in place? Will schools implement extended school days or staggered instruction?

With each new piece of guidance or set of rules and policies that agencies and bodies such as TEA, SBEC, SBOE, and TRS develop, we get a little bit more clarity. Rest assured, the ATPE lobby team is involved in this process to make sure the voices of public educators are heard. As developments occur, check ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources and watch for updates here on Teach the Vote and via our @TeachtheVote Twitter account.

One thing we know for sure is that educators are resilient and abundantly caring individuals, which is why each Friday we are featuring a positive educator story in our “Week in Review” blog post. here on Teach the Vote. Thank you to all educators who are still brightening their students’ days, all while taking care of their own needs and the needs of their families. #TeachersCan

Share how you are adapting to a new educational environment during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to email us your stories, best practices for distance learning, or strategies you’re using to stay upbeat during the crisis.

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.


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 28, 2020

Today is the last day of early voting in Texas! Whether you’ve already had your close-up with the ballot box or plan to vote on March 3, catch up on the latest education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


ELECTION UPDATE: Today, Feb. 28, is the last day of early voting. Voter turnout has been steady in the state’s largest counties. Texas’ primary elections on “Super Tuesday” will be March 3, 2020. For the latest news on races in Texas, check out ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins’ “election roundup” blog post.

If you haven’t made it to the polls yet, we’re bringing it back to basics to get you vote-ready.

    • WHO? Visual learner? Watch this video to learn how to view candidate profiles on Teach the Vote, which include responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey. If your favorite candidate has not answered our survey, encourage them to contact ATPE Governmental Relations for additional details. It’s not too late!
    • WHAT? We’ve received many questions about the party-based, non-binding propositions that are on your primary ballot. Learn more about these philosophical statements proposed by the state’s Democratic and Republican parties in this Teach the Vote blog post. These measures won’t change the law, but they help state party leaders learn more about their voters’ opinions on key issues.
    • WHERE? Use Vote411.org to find your polling location and build a customized ballot that you can print out and take with you to the polls. (You won’t be able to use your phone inside the voting booth.)
    • WHEN? Today or March 3! Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to view an election countdown, get text reminders, and find additional election-related resources created for educators.
    • WHY? Did you know that some races are determined entirely by the primaries? Read more about why it is important to vote in the primaries in Part I and Part II of Teach the Vote’s “Primary Colors” blog series.
    • HOW? Get the scoop on how to vote, including guidance on new balloting systems in use in many polling places. Click here for tips!

Want even more? Read all the fantastic election features in our latest issue of ATPE News for Spring 2020 and find additional election reminders and tips on ATPE’s main blog at atpe.org. As you’re researching candidates and building your ballot, check out video of the recent candidate forums conducted around the state by Raise Your Hand Texas to learn more about the candidates’ views on public education.


FEDERAL UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education has released the federal teacher shortage areas for Texas in 2020-21, which are largely consistent with those listed in 2018-19 and 2019-20. These include Pre-K-12 bilingual education, special education, and computer science, plus 7-12 career and technical education and mathematics. Since 2019-20, computer science as a shortage area has been expanded from only at the secondary level to covering all grades, likely reflecting career and technical needs across the country in our changing economy. The nationwide teacher shortage areas have implications for federal loan forgiveness and deferment options.

On Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sat before the U.S. House Appropriations education, health, and labor subcommittee to defend President Donald Trump’s education budget proposal, which we wrote about here on Teach the Vote. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier reports that members of Congress questioned the secretary on several issues, including spending and scandals associated with charter schools, discipline practices for vulnerable students, concerns about child vaping, and the mechanics of the proposed consolidation of 29 federal programs into one block grant. Secretary DeVos defended much of the proposal by stating that the department’s intent is to give more spending freedom and flexibility to states.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Feb. 27, 2020 (Source).

Much of the hearing was devoted to criticism and defense of the proposed “Education Freedom Scholarships” and the civil rights risk associated with the department’s lack of commitment to ensuring non-discrimination. DeVos insisted that, because the scholarship program would be administered through the U.S. Department of Treasury, the voucher-like tax credit was not federal funding. This would free the program from being tied to federal protections for students such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it seemed apparent that many committee members understood this impact. View video of the hearing here.


The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) conducted a survey of Texas public school districts on salaries during the fall of the 2019-20 school year. Just under half (49%) of districts responded, representing 84% of the estimated teacher population in Texas. According to respondents, the median starting salary for a new teacher is $44,000. This increase of 7.3% from 2018-19 is largely due to the passage of House Bill (HB) 3 and represents a one-time bump in salaries unless the Texas legislature increases the public school basic allotment again. A similar superintendent survey conducted by TASB showed a 3.1% increase in the average superintendent’s salary from 2018-19. See the full TASB teacher compensation survey for more information, including stipend trends and substitute pay. In both surveys, educators who work in larger districts were shown to receive higher pay.


In December 2019, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier reviewed Part I of a recent readability study of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). Mandated by the Legislature as part of last year’s House Bill (HB) 3, the findings in Part I left many questions unanswered. Chevalier reports that with the recent release of Part II, the study is now complete, but it still leaves us wondering if STAAR tests are written at the appropriate grade-level, as the results are mostly the same as in Part I.

Using 2020 STAAR assessments, researchers found that 99.5% of test items were aligned to the TEKS curriculum standards. As in Part I, researchers could not answer if items were at a grade-appropriate readability level due to a lack of confidence in methods and analysis. Lastly, the passage readability results were mixed, with researchers reporting multiple methods of analysis that lead to different conclusions.

Because this non-peer-reviewed study is entirely inconclusive on item readability and presents unclear results on passage readability, many questions remain as to the appropriateness of the use of STAAR in high-stakes decisions. As noted by Chevalier, if a student cannot understand a question because it uses vocabulary outside the scope of the student’s common knowledge, the child cannot be expected to answer it correctly.


Texas Senate Finance committee meets Feb. 25, 2020

The Senate Finance Committee met in Austin this week. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that among other agenda items, the interim hearing included a review of the investment strategies and performance of funds invested through the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), the Permanent School Fund, and university funds. The committee has been charged during the interim with making recommendations to better coordinate and leverage Texas’ purchasing power to maximize investment income for the state.

The committee also added to its agenda an examination of the long-term facility plans of TRS, including specifically examining the facility space costs of housing TRS’s Investment Management Division. TRS Executive director Brian Guthrie delivered two presentations to the board: the first on TRS investment strategies and the second on long-term space planning for the agency.


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.