2012-02-22 / Opinion & Columns

Texas Politics

State test for students premature, education chief says
Dave McNeely

The Texas Legislature tends to mandate big goals, but then fails to provide the money to carry them out. And then wonder why the goals weren’t met.

An agency asks for an important car with four wheels. The Legislature will only pay for three. Then, the car fails to go as fast and safe as if it had four wheels. So the Legislature investigates to see what the driver is doing wrong.

OK, it’s not all legislators – just a big majority.

The House last session had 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats. The Senate had 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Gov. Rick Perry, House Speaker Joe Straus, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, are all Republicans.

Most went along with the $4 billion shortfall on school funding.

Our topic today is Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott’s decision to let school districts and charter schools decide locally whether to postpone for this school year the inclusion of new tests’ results in student grades.

Some background:

In 2009, the Legislature ordered a new test to check students’ progress, and to be 15 percent of student grades.

It’s the STAAR test: the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

It will replace the TAKS test, or Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The Texas Education Agency’s STAAR website is designed to “provide information and sample test questions to familiarize Texas educators and the public with the design and format of the STAAR assessment,” says the TEA.

“The information is intended to help educators understand how the new STAAR program measures the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards,” the TEA continues.

(Check out the Frequently Asked Questions at the TEA’s website at www.tea.state.tx.us/ student.assessment/staar/ and get an idea why even teachers are confused.)

In 2011, Gov. Perry told the Legislature to balance the state’s budget without new taxes -- despite a significant revenue shortfall, and the absence of the $16 billion in federal stimulus money Perry used to balance the budget in 2009.

Even if the legislators wanted to raise taxes to meet state needs, which most of those backed by the anti-Obama, anti-tax Tea Party folks didn’t, they hesitated to have on their record votes for tax increases that would only be vetoed.

So. There was a legislative mandate for a new test, but no money to put it in place, or help struggling students.

Scott announced at a meeting that school testing had become a “perversion.” Some key legislators, like Senate Education chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, expressed surprise. She thought Scott was totally on board for accountability testing. Well, he is. But “what we’ve done over the past decade is we’ve doubled down on the test every couple of years and used it for more and more things to make it the be-all, end-all” of measuring education from kindergarten through high school, Scott said.

“You’ve reached a point now where you’ve got this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon,” he said. “It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak.”

A Scott predecessor as education commissioner, Jim Nelson, who attended Scott’s speech, couldn’t have agreed more.

“I thought Robert made a great speech,” said Nelson, who now works for an education improvement group called AVID. “He spoke from the heart and he had his facts straight. It took guts.

“The fact is that educators in Texas have supported higher standards all along the way since we started this effort in the early 90s,” Nelson said. “I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t support the raising of the bar, so long as the state does its part.

“Every other time the bar has been raised, the state has provided financial and programmatic support (the Texas Reading Initiative under Nelson predecessor Mike Moses is a perfect example),” Nelson said.

“Not only did that not occur this time, the level of support per child has gone down and there is little if any assistance available for struggling students,” Nelson said.

“It is just fundamental fairness. That is all the school folks are asking for. Otherwise, we are simply setting up schools, and more importantly, students, for failure.”

Shapiro, who isn’t seeking re-election, within days joined the call for Scott to postpone inclusion of STAAR tests for grading purposes.

So did Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, chair of the House Committee on Public Education.

So Scott cleared it with the governor’s office, and then made his declaration. Though 9th graders have to take the test, for the time being – depending on their school’s attitude – it doesn’t have to affect their academic standing

. DAVE McNEELY is political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@gmail.com or (512)458-2963.

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