High-Stakes Standardized Testing for Pre-K? The Last Thing We Need

Educational research shows that investing in pre-kindergarten education is just about the most cost-effective expenditure the state could make. Research also tells us that full-time pre-K has a bigger payoff in terms of student success than part-time pre-K, and that pre-K especially benefits economically disadvantaged children.

These facts have led state Sen. Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for governor, to advocate expansion of quality pre-K to make it universally available on a full-day basis for all Texas children. Texas AFT applauds that initiative.

In contrast, her opponent, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott has proposed a meager amount of funding—not enough even to restore the already-modest state grants for full-day pre-K in selected districts that were wiped out by the harsh state budget cuts of 2011. Abbott also has implied erroneously that he alone is concerned about the quality of pre-K programs, and he has said that among the quality-control measures he would consider is the use of standardized assessments.

For many educators, this conjures up visions of a move in exactly the wrong direction on standardized testing, pushing STAAR-like achievement tests down into preschool, with high stakes attached—including access to funding. The push to assess preschoolers is already a problem in some districts, where the looming third-grade STAAR tests have been allowed to create a perverse incentive for developmentally inappropriate testing in kindergarten and preschool. The only winners from this practice are the testing companies that profit from the proliferation of standardized assessments.

Last year in the Texas legislature two bills filed with Texas AFT’s support would have imposed new constraints on testing in these early grades. SB 1608 by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the San Antonio Democrat now running for lieutenant governor, and HB 504 by Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, Democrat of Houston, were companion bills that would have set limits on the ability of the state and districts to impose standardized tests on students in pre-K and kindergarten. Exceptions for diagnostic testing were built into the legislation, which nonetheless still ran into resistance from the testing lobby.

At the hearing on SB 1608, witnesses cited the stressful and stultifying impact of inappropriate, time-consuming testing on these youngsters. For children who are at an age when discovering the joy of learning is so critical, one witness testified, the focus on standardized test-taking teaches the wrong lesson. Supposedly the intent of such STAAR-like assessments is to ensure that students are “kindergarten-ready,” but the danger is that students will show up for kindergarten and first grade having learned that “I am here to pass the test,” as one youngster put it.

Similar legislation to limit preschool testing has now been proposed in the U.S. Congress, as part of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1697 and H.R. 3461), by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, and U.S. Rep. George Miller, Democrat of California. Cosponsors in the U.S. House include four Texans:  U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Ruben Hinojosa of Edinburg, Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, and Beto O’Rourke of El Paso.

Sens. Davis and Van de Putte are on the right track on this issue and should not listen to the apologists for high-stakes standardized testing in preschool who apparently have gained the ear of Attorney General Abbott.

Posted in Accountability System, Elections, Pre-K, Testing | Leave a comment

Senators Hear Texas AFT and Allies Call for More Curbs on Misuse, Overuse of State Exams

The state legislature last year reduced the number of state end-of-course exams students must pass to graduate from high school, but much remains to be done before we can say Texas has put state achievement exams back in their proper place. That was the message delivered Monday to the Texas Senate Education Committee by Texas AFT, parent representatives, and allied groups at a hearing on implementation of HB 5, the 2013 testing-reduction bill.

The unfinished agenda of needed curbs on the impact of standardized state tests includes:

–Scaling back the number of state tests in grades three through eight, which last year’s legislation left untouched.

–Tightening up language in state law intended to cap the number of local benchmark tests given in preparation for the high-stakes state exams.

–Proper implementation of the part of HB 5 that required the Texas Education Agency to develop alternative exams for students with severe cognitive disabilities. This provision was intended to relieve teachers of state test-design responsibilities and allow them to spend more time teaching. But witnesses testified that the agency’s proposed alternative apparently would not provide individually tailored, developmentally appropriate testing.

–Moving away from high-stakes, punitive use of state achievement tests to diagnostic use. For students, this would mean development of alternatives stressing portfolio and performance assessment, teachers’ professional judgment of students’ work, and use of state achievement tests as one indicator among others, not the be-all, end-all of assessment. The aim of alternative approaches would be to achieve a more rounded assessment of students’ ability to solve problems, think critically, and develop social-emotional capacities like the persistence and grit needed to be successful beyond high school.

–Rejecting the push by federal, state, and some local officials to base the evaluation of each individual teacher substantially on the standardized-test scores of that teacher’s students. As Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi noted, this push lacks support in both state law and educational research and would make the obsession with standardized testing worse than ever. (See the April 10 Hotline for more of what Texas AFT had to say on this theme.)

Posted in Accountability System, Evaluations, Legislature, Testing | Leave a comment

News from the State Board of Education: Ethnic Studies Advanced; Charter-School Junkets Considered

On the plus side, members of the State Board of Education meeting in Austin this week took a step forward toward a curriculum that better reflects the demographic diversity of Texas.  On the minus side, they are going to continue to consider making a serious misstep—taking money from charter-school promoters to pay for travel to visit out-of-state charter operators who want the State Board to approve their applications to expand into Texas.

First, the plus side:  While the State Board did not adopt Mexican-American studies as a new state-defined elective for students in high school, Board members did agree to ask textbook publishers to develop instructional materials for use in Texas public schools in four locally developed ethnic-studies courses:  Mexican-American, African-American, Asian-American, and Native American studies.

The bipartisan vote on this issue was 12 to 2, with only Republicans David Bradley of Beaumont and Geraldine Miller of Dallas voting no. Texas AFT was pleased to take a stand with the Board majority and allied organizations including the Texas Freedom Network, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the NAACP in support of this overdue acknowledgment of the many-faceted cultural heritage and present-day diversity of Texas. Thanks are due to all of you who took the time to send in your e-mail letters to the State Board in favor of this curriculum move. Your messages helped make change happen.

Now for the minus side:  A group called Choose to Succeed, devoted to promoting the expansion of charter schools in Texas, particularly in San Antonio, wants State Board members to be more welcoming of out-of-state charter chains seeking to expand into Texas. To that end, Choose to Succeed has proposed to pay for trips by State Board members to visit charter operations out of state to see the wonders they are performing.  You might call these trips junkets if you were uncharitable. You might also call them an unseemly attempt to use a well-padded wallet to exert improper influence on State Board members.

You might even think an idea so malodorous would be rejected summarily as an insult to the good  judgment of the State Board. But there you’d be wrong. Despite the misgivings voiced by some–and an outright “no” voiced by others like SBOE member Ruben Cortez of Brownsville—the State Board did not reject this bad idea out of hand. Instead, the Board asked the Texas Education Agency staff to draft a proposed rule stating the terms on which promoters could pay for State Board members to take such promotional trips. Regrettably, therefore, we can expect to hear more of this at an upcoming meeting of the State Board. By the same token, Board members can expect to hear plenty more from Texans who object to such blatantly inappropriate practices.

Posted in Charter Schools, Curriculum, SBOE | Leave a comment

Wrong Direction on Teacher Evaluation

By May 2 Commissioner of Education Michael Williams has promised the U.S. Department of Education he will produce “final guidelines” for teacher evaluation that threaten to make the obsession with standardized testing in Texas classrooms worse than ever. Commissioner Williams has committed himself to meet federal demands for the use of scores on state assessments by a teacher’s students as a “significant factor” in each teacher’s individual evaluation.

The commitment to produce these “final guidelines” appears to contradict simultaneous assurances from the commissioner that the final shape of a new evaluation scheme would be guided by results of evaluation pilot projects in selected districts that will not be completed until after the 2014-2015 school year.

The commissioner also has told educators there will be extensive stakeholder involvement in the development of a new recommended state appraisal system, plus opportunities for public comment when the new scheme is spelled out in proposed administrative regulations. However, Commissioner Williams at the same time has betrayed impatience with comments from educators questioning the legal basis and policy wisdom of evaluation schemes based on students’ test scores. Earlier this year he said dismissively that teacher organizations should just “slow down and let us finish this product.”

That sort of condescension only accentuates the concern that the new evaluation scheme will not take teachers’ views into account in any serious way before it is a finished product—an accomplished fact. Yet the commissioner really needs to hear what teachers and their representatives are saying, because he is standing on quicksand both legally and in terms of sound educational policy.

The key Education Code provisions on teacher evaluation, Sections 21.351 and 21.352, do not authorize the commissioner to dictate to school districts that scores of an individual teacher’s students on state assessments will be a significant factor in the evaluation of that teacher. Yet the commissioner has committed himself to developing evaluation schemes, according to his No Child Left Behind waiver agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, that would indeed bow to federal demands to do precisely what state law does not authorize him to do—mandate that scores of a teacher’s students on state assessments count as a significant factor in the individual teacher’s evaluation.

The commissioner’s waiver agreement with the feds also clearly envisions the use of value-added methodology relying on students’ test scores as the basis for measurement of each teacher’s effectiveness. Yet, notwithstanding the marketing claims of the high-stakes testing-industrial complex, the flaws and limitations of using value-added methodology based on students’ standardized test scores are well-established. The evidence shows that, as a high-stakes measurement used to sort, rank, and evaluate teachers, value-added methodology is a defective product.

A recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Education itself found significant variations in teachers’ value-added scores, concluding that the variations do not reflect the quality of teaching but rather are likely due to “measurement error.”  The Rand Corporation and the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences both concluded that the results of applying value-added methodology should not be used to evaluate individual teachers. The experience of teachers with a black-box value-added evaluation scheme in use in Houston ISD underscores the instability and unreliability of measurements using this methodology. (Note: Texas AFT is mounting a legal challenge to that Houston evaluation system.) Adoption of such an unsound methodology for teacher appraisal statewide will only undermine the ability of teachers to deliver high-quality instruction that cultivates in each student persistence, critical thinking, problem-solving, and high levels of social-emotional development.

Texas AFT will raise these issues in testimony before the Senate Education Committee on April 14. We also will provide you with a timely new opportunity to share your views on this matter not only with the commissioner of education but also with members of the legislature. It is these lawmakers, not Commissioner Williams, who will have the last word on the fate of whatever new evaluation scheme is hatched under the “final guidelines” to be announced by May 2.

Posted in Evaluations, Legislature, Michael Williams, TEA, Teachers, Testing, U.S. Department of Education | Leave a comment

Senate Committees to Study Teacher Prep, Dual Credit, College Readiness, and TRS Pension and Health-Care Programs

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Tuesday announced new interim study assignments for key committees on topics of major interest for education employees in both pre-K/12 public schools and higher education.  Dewhurst said the topics ranged from “further improving the quality of higher education in Texas to assessing the financial health of our state’s key retirement funds.”

Dewhurst gave the following assignments to the Senate Higher Education Committee chaired by Sen. Kel Seliger, Republican of Amarillo:

–“TEACHER PREPARATION…examine and make recommendations regarding improvements in teacher preparation and certification programs to address any misalignment with school district shortages and problems with retaining new teachers.

“COURSEWORK…review and make recommendations regarding the use of dual credit coursework and other secondary school programs for college credit, including the academic rigor of such programs and predictive value for college success.

“COLLEGE READINESS…examine and make recommendations regarding alignment between high school coursework and expectations in freshman level college coursework….[and] study the impact of particular coursework, specifically mathematics (including Algebra II) and science courses, as predictors of college readiness and success.”

It is noteworthy that Lt. Gov. Dewhurst chose not to give any joint responsibility for these interim studies to the Senate Education Committee, which has jurisdiction over matters involving pre-K/12 education. It is perhaps relevant that Dewhurst is currently facing a primary runoff challenge for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor from Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Dewhurst also on Tuesday gave the Senate State Affairs Committee, chaired by Republican Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock, an important task regarding pension and health-care issues affecting education employees:

“STATE PENSION AND HEALTH CARE PROGRAMS…monitor the actuarial and financial conditions of the pension and health care programs administered by the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) and the Employees Retirement System (ERS).”

Texas AFT will keep you informed as hearings and other interim committee activities on these topics are scheduled.

Posted in Higher Education, Legislature, Pensions, TRS | Leave a comment

Nationally and in Texas, Equal Pay for Equal Work is a Hot Issue

On average, a woman in this country has to work a year plus nearly a hundred extra days to receive the same amount of money paid over 365 days to the average male worker. That’s why April 8, just shy of the 100th day of this year, is marked as Equal Pay Day, and that’s why we saw actions taken this day at the federal and state level to uphold the legal principle of equal pay for equal work.

President Obama used executive authority granted under existing law to impose stronger equal-pay requirements on federal contractors, and he called for new federal legislation to make equal-pay enforcement easier. Here in Texas Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, continued to blast her opponent, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, for his opposition to enhanced enforcement of equal pay for equal work.

Davis was the Senate author last year of bipartisan legislation enabling women to win compensation in state court when employers engage in pay discrimination. Abbott, after much hemming and hawing, finally admitted recently that he would veto the bill if he were governor. Meanwhile, he continues to have a hard time explaining why the women lawyers in his office are paid less than the guys who do the same work and have the same or fewer years of experience.

Sen. Davis is not letting up on this issue, and she makes the important point that it is not just a concern for the women directly affected.  “This is about ensuring all hardworking Texans have access to basic economic opportunity.  With so many families relying on two incomes to pay the bills and put gas in the truck, they can’t afford one paycheck to be unfairly reduced just because one of them is a woman.”

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Mexican-American Studies Course Gets Strong Backing at State Board of Education Hearing

Texas AFT joined dozens of state legislators and a broad array of education and community groups today in support of adding an optional elective course in Mexican-American studies to the state curriculum for students in high school. Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi’s testimony submitted to the State Board cited with approval a recent op-ed article by state Sens. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) and Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), who urged the Board to “create a model that school districts can use in their lesson plans to inspire the next generation of Texans.”

The Board will continue to consider the proposal as its meetings continue through Friday. You can register your support for the Mexican-American studies option by e-mailing a letter to the Board from the Texas AFT Web site.


Posted in Curriculum, SBOE | Leave a comment

Enrollment Soars in Texas Public Schools

It’s official—Texas public schools now enroll more than five million students. In 2012-2013, the total enrollment reached 5,075,840, according to the Texas Education Agency’s newly published report on enrollment trends through 2012-2013. Over the ten years since 2002-2003, enrollment increased by 19.3 percent, or 820,019 students. Hispanic students now account for 51.3 percent of total enrollment.

The percentage of economically disadvantaged students has risen sharply over the past decade, from 51.8 percent to 60.3 percent. The increase in the proportion of economically disadvantaged students was more than double the overall percentage increase in student population.

The number of students receiving bilingual or English-as-a-second-language instruction rose by 46.9 percent, and the number identified as English language learners increased by 37.2 percent.

You will find the full report at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/acctres/enroll_index.html.

Posted in ESL, Reports, Schoolchildren, TEA | Leave a comment

Everyday Heroes

Read about inspiring AFT members who are reclaiming the promise of public education, higher education, health care, and other public services, and vote today for your favorite AFT Everyday Heroes!

Get to know fellow members like Julie Ahern, who has secured tens of thousands of dollars through grants and awards to purchase much-needed school supplies and laptops and to refurbish her school’s greenhouse. Meet dental hygienist and associate professor Sherri Lukes, who helps underserved populations get access to dental care and has traveled with her students to Central Mexico to set up dental clinics for residents there.

These are just two of the inspiring AFT Everyday Hero stories that epitomize the spirit of public service, camaraderie, and compassion—a spirit that motivates us all to reclaim the promise in our workplaces and in our communities. Today through April 20, vote for your favorite AFT Everyday Heroes.

Semifinalists from each AFT constituency have been chosen, representing teachers, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, higher education staff and faculty, health-care professionals, public employees, early-childhood educators, and retirees. The semifinalist who gets the most votes in each constituency will be named his or her constituency’s 2014 Everyday Hero and will be honored at this year’s AFT convention in Los Angeles. Vote now!


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Your Guide to Home Rule—What the Dallas ISD Fight Over Home Rule Is Really About

The backers of the current drive to turn Dallas ISD into a “home rule” charter district—the first ever in Texas—would have you believe that nothing but sweetness and light and solicitude for the children of Dallas ISD lies behind their bid to take over the district. For a reliable guide to what’s really going on—a grab for power that would enable outside private operators and their handmaidens among local politicians to take over the district—we recommend that you read the “Home Rule Takeover Q&A” issue brief by Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig and J. Clayton Riley of the University of Texas at Austin.

Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational policy and planning, and Riley, a graduate student in the same field and a former Dallas-area middle-school math teacher, cite Houston billionaire and former Enron executive John Arnold as a major funder of the home-rule push in Dallas, which began a month ago with the initiation of a petition drive to secure the nearly 25,000 signatures necessary to force a referendum on home rule. Arnold is known for his nationwide attacks on pension guarantees for teachers and other public employees, but he also has been funding a wide variety of efforts to privatize the operation of public schools in the name of “reform.”

The analysis by Vasquez Heilig and Riley makes it clear that home rule would serve the interests of Arnold and his enablers like Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas ISD board trustee Mike Morath, not the interests of schoolchildren in Dallas ISD. The authors ask:  “What ‘rules’ would Dallas be ‘free’ from after a Home Rule takeover?” Their answer:

“Many of the laws Dallas ISD would be exempted from as a Home Rule takeover district directly impact teachers:  the district would no longer need to adhere to the state’s minimum salary schedule…or the due process procedures protecting teachers against wrongful termination; state mandated minimums for leaves of absence, planning and preparation time, duty free lunch and professional development will be exempted if Dallas becomes a Home Rule Charter District; the district may be able to alter the curriculum from the TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills]; and schools will no longer have to adhere to counseling programs or code protecting minimum counselor to student ratios. Additionally, no longer applicable would be state laws affording students specific due process rights in disciplinary proceedings (Education Code Chapter 37) and granting parents access to teaching materials and other information regarding their child’s education (Education Code Chapter 26). Finally, the laws regarding governance will no longer apply to the district, as the trustee appointed charter takeover commission will establish a governance to be approved by the state, federal courts (if they choose to weigh in), and Dallas ISD voters.

“Thus, everything not specifically stipulated in the law is fair game, including the splitting of Dallas ISD into several smaller districts, as well as turning the district over to mayoral control, a voucher system, or the control of a private, for-profit corporation.”

Vasquez Heilig and Riley find no evidence supporting the educational efficacy of these moves that home rule would “free” the new rulers of Dallas ISD to make—in fact, available evidence on privatization and policies like mayoral control tilts against these ideas. Instead of wasting time on home rule, the authors suggest, the Dallas ISD community should pursue what they call “gold standard” reforms, including expansion of pre-K, class-size reduction, and the guarantee of an experienced and certified teacher for every student in the district.

Posted in Alliance-AFT, Charter Schools, Class Size | Leave a comment