House committee delves into alternative assessments, changes to special education

The Texas House Committee on Public Education met at the Capitol Thursday to hear testimony on and discuss two interim charges regarding student assessment and meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Those testifying included Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency staff, school district superintendents and other local administrators, advocates for students in special education, parents and your Texas AFT senior legislative agent Ted Raab.

At the request of committee chair Dan Huberty, the hearing opened with a brief update from mike morathcommissioner Morath about the agency’s response to the shootings and deaths at Santa Fe High School. Morath told legislators that TEA was helping Santa Fe ISD obtain federal funds available to assist school districts hit with catastrophes. He also noted the unfortunate fact that Santa Fe had begun this school year battered by Hurricane Harvey and was ending it with 10 firearm fatalities.

The next portion of the hearing dealt with student assessment. Highlights included an acknowledgment from Morath and TEA staff that the standardized testing contractor, ETS, had been responsible for significant failures in on-line STAAR exams in two of the most recent three years. Morath announced that ETS would be fined $100,000 for the problems in this year STAAR administration (a $21 million fine was levied in 2016) and that test scores of affected students would only count in school accountability ratings if doing so would raise those scores.

In his testimony for Texas AFT on assessments, Raab pointed legislators to an outstanding system in use for almost 20 years in a consortium of high schools in New York. Thirty-eight schools, most of them in New York City and serving minority students from families with low-incomes, participate in the New York Performance Standards Consortium and, rather than state-mandated multiple-choice tests, measure student achievement through teacher-created assessment portfolios that enable students to demonstrate subject mastery through activities tied directly to their academic work.

Raab then recommended to legislators that methods of assessing achievement be themselves tested against students’ actual life outcomes and experience. Noting that standardized test scores obviously have no inherent value and that even rich portfolio assessment does not necessarily indicate continuing student success, Raab shared information about the Central Texas Student Futures Project—a research partnership between the University of Texas at Austin’s Ray Marshall Center and 15 Austin-area school districts. The project, which began in 2004, documents and analyzes the progress of Central Texas students beyond high school as they move on to colleges and careers.

The final portion of Thursday’s hearing focused on special education and, particularly, on the now-outlawed TEA performance indicator that in many districts signaled a cap on special education services enrollment and led to the denial of assessment and services for students who were entitled to special education. Advocates for students and their families commended legislative action on this issue and offered restrained approval of TEA’s work but also noted the significant gap between the current number of students assessed and enrolled in special education and the number that would be expected based on other measures of the number of students likely eligible. The hearing wrapped up with testimony from Lynn Davenport, a mother of students in special education, who urged legislators to ensure that students’ needs are met and their rights upheld. She expressed strong skepticism of “partnerships” with charter schools and private providers, in part because those entities are not subject to transparency and public control–as are neighborhood public schools–and their relatively poor record in helping students in special education.

You can view the video of the hearing here, which looked at the following specific interim charges:

Interim Charge #5. Examine research-based options for evaluating student achievement beyond standardized test scores, including adaptive and portfolio assessments. Examine the scope of the current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) in grades with the state assessment, including the format, assessment calendar, and the limits of instructional days, if any. Determine if it is appropriate to limit TEKS to readiness standards that can be taught in less than the school year. Review current Student Success Initiative testing and make recommendations on its continuation or repeal. Review the ability of the state to waive standardized testing for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Interim Charge #6. Examine programs in public schools that have proven results meeting the needs of and improving student achievement for students with disabilities, with an emphasis on programs specializing in autism, dysgraphia, and dyslexia. Recommend ways to support and scale innovative programs for these students, including providing supplemental services, or incentivizing public-private partnerships or inter district and charter school collaborations. Monitor the implementation and funding for the pilot programs authorized in H.B. 21 (85R) and review the Texas Education Agency’s compliance with S.B. 160 (85R), which prohibits special education student caps.