Senate Education Panel Weighs Effects of Legislation Downgrading Due-Process Protection, Implementing New STAAR Testing Regime

It was not easy to get a word in edgewise at the October 30 hearing of the Senate Education Committee, partly because it covered so much ground in barely a couple of hours, including:  SB 8, the bill that downgraded vital safeguards of due process and salary standards in state law; SB 738, the bill creating a limited version of a “parent trigger” law; HB 1942, last year’s anti-bullying bill, which took effect at the start of the current school year; SB 6, the bill to establish a new system of school-district purchasing of instructional materials; and the huge topic of testing and accountability, focusing on the new system of STAAR exams that the legislature called for in the 2007 and 2009 sessions (SB 1031, HB 3).

Nonetheless, Texas AFT and other critics of the legislative status quo did get a chance to testify. We’ll note some of Texas AFT’s key comments in a moment, but first we want to tip our cap to the parent advocates who showed up to challenge the imposition of the new testing regime.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, the Republican of Plano who is the author of much of the state’s current testing and accountability laws, felt the need to acknowledge a “need to fix the system in a lot of ways,” but she implored her Senate colleagues “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”  However, the parent advocates did not back off a bit from their tough critique of the Texas testing system.  Dineen Majcher, speaking for a parent group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, said parents are not against testing and strong accountability but rather against standardized testing that has “no valid correlation” with improved college readiness.  Other parents testified that excessive emphasis on preparation for standardized state tests eats up time that should be spent on broader instruction and learning in tested subjects. Majcher stressed that Texas has more standardized testing, and spends more on it, than any other state.

Texas AFT’s testimony bolstered the parents’ case, citing a 2011 study for the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science.  A blue-ribbon NRC committee of education scholars, economists, and scientists concluded that there’s no substantial evidence that reliance on testing data for high-stakes decisions improves student outcomes (see http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12521). One of the scholars involved, behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University, noted that policies should have been piloted but instead have been implemented wholesale with no foundation in good research. He said: “We went ahead, implementing this incredibly expensive and elaborate strategy for changing the education system without creating enough ways to test whether what we are doing is useful or not.” He added: “We’re relying on some primitive intuition about how to structure the education system without thinking deeply about it….It raises a red flag for education. These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze. We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that.”

Texas AFT also pointed to a study by University of Texas professor Walter Stroup, a specialist in mathematics education, who contends that current tests do not measure subject-matter mastery but rather by their very design primarily measure pre-existing test-taking ability. In Stroup’s parlance, the test developers have selected test questions that are “insensitive to instruction”—i.e., the test results do not reflect the impact of instruction in the current classroom. It is a damning indictment, and we urged the proponents of the current system to confront it and explain how it is wrong–if they can.

The committee discussion of testing and accountability, despite its brevity, showed that senators are hearing an earful from constituents already dissatisfied with the STAAR testing system as it begins to be implemented.  “The time is ripe,” we testified yesterday, “for a thorough reconsideration of the testing fixation that has taken the focus away from real teaching and learning in our classrooms, not just in Texas but across the nation.” (We will have more to report on the growing movement to change course on standardized testing and punitive accountability measures in upcoming Hotlines.)

Regarding SB 8, which attacked longstanding safeguards of due process and salary standards for education employees, Texas AFT urged the Education Committee to recognize that this one-sided legislation represents a historic wrong turn in state policy. Because this law took effect well into the 2011-2012 school year, it is only in the current 2012-2013 school year that key provisions are coming into force. That gives the legislature a chance in the 2013 session to revisit and correct decisions that were made last year in a climate of crisis, before those decisions do lasting damage. Prime examples of safeguards that should be restored:

–ensuring a truly independent hearing officer in all mid-contract termination cases;
–letting the independent hearing examiner decide the factual question of “good cause” for termination, instead of giving school boards that did not hear the evidence power to override the hearing examiner’s findings;
–and reinstating the salary floor that is essential to keep school districts from using state-passed pay raises to supplant local salary steps instead of adding to them.

Texas AFT noted that provisions of SB 8 relating to furloughs and salary reductions, to the extent they were justified at all, could only be justified as temporary responses to a state fiscal crisis. Now the apparent shortfall in state revenue that occasioned this legislation already has substantially abated. In fact, the 2013 legislature will have a large amount of available revenue above what was forecast in 2011—enough money to reverse the 2011 school-funding cuts and have a lot left over.  An appropriate response would be for the legislature to let the pay-cut provisions of SB 8 automatically expire.

On the issue of the “parent trigger” in SB 738, the reality is that charter-school operators who want to take over neighborhood schools have hit upon this idea as a new strategy of late, seeking state legislation under which a majority of parents at a campus can be solicited to trigger charter conversion by petition. SB 738 includes only a modest start on the full “parent trigger” agenda. Thus Sen. Shapiro professed concern that only in the sixth year of a school’s low-rated performance could parents petition for a particular sanction such as charter conversion to be imposed by the commissioner of education.

Texas AFT directed the committee’s attention to a much better idea already included in state law—what you might call the “parent-teacher trigger,” which authorizes a majority of parents and a majority of teachers at a campus to petition their school board jointly to create a campus charter with innovative programs chosen by the parents and teachers themselves. It’s a genuine grass-roots approach that has worked well in San Antonio ISD, where our local affiliate, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, has worked with parents and teachers to create more than a dozen innovative campus charters, retaining their character as neighborhood schools while achieving good academic results.  This grass-roots, bottom-up version of the “trigger” idea also is on the verge of bearing fruit with a new parent-teacher-initiated campus charter in Austin ISD. Successful examples exist elsewhere around the state as well.