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Texas Will Soon Release A-F Grades for Schools. Educators are Organizing in Opposition

In exactly a week, Texas will give its school districts official grades for the first time, rating them on a scale from A through F, with state officials promising a more transparent system that will show parents how their schools are educating students.

But the discussion about the new grades, which replace a pass/fail system, is already getting messy. Superintendents and educator advocacy groups, historically opposed to the graded system, are already organizing a campaign to fight it — arguing that letter grades cannot accurately reflect their work or factor in the challenges of educating a student body with diverse needs.

The state will use the grades to judge school performance and make policy decisions about their management.

“Parents want their children to do rigorous, engaging work that sparks a lifelong love of learning, not prep for a multiple-choice test that colleges and businesses don’t even consider,” said Kevin Brown, the new executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, which has released a set of talking points for educators to rally against the system.

At a House Public Education Committee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers questioned Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath about his plans for calculating and rolling out the controversial grades. Morath said the agency was given a lot of leeway to make decisions on the calculations and worked to build a holistic grading system.

The state Legislature made final revisions to the accountability system last spring, replacing a pass/fail system of rating schools and districts. This August, school districts will be graded in three categories: student achievement, student progress and closing the gaps. The state will use standardized test scores to grade elementary and middle schools, and a range of additional factors — such as graduation rates — to grade high schools.

Schools will receive pass/fail ratings this year before transitioning to a graded system next August — a compromise lawmakers made last spring to appease critics of the new system. But the Texas Education Agency will release numeric scores for schools next week, which can be easily translated to letter grades.

The student progress category is broken down into two subcategories, one that looks at how well students are improving on their standardized tests and another that looks at how students are performing at their school compared with similar schools.

Schools or districts that receive three or more F grades in those subcategories and the other two categories will automatically receive an F grade overall.

That rule informed the latest wave of criticism against the graded system. Calling the rule “forced failure,” the association of school administrators sent a letter to Morath Monday arguing educators were not given the chance to comment on it.

State Rep. Diego Bernal, a San Antonio Democrat, asked Morath to explain the decision at Wednesday’s Public Education Committee hearing. “In the rule, we’ve created a scenario that’s not in the bill,” he said. “We’ve created a scenario where a campus will get an F.”

Morath warned against looking at any specific part of the grade calculation in isolation and said the rule helps provide a more accurate depiction of a school’s performance. His agency will also unveil a new website next week that breaks down the calculations for each rating for both schools and districts.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Administrators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Author:  ALIYYA SWABY –  The Texas Tribune

Socorro ISD Awarded $1.4m TEA Grant for Afterschool, Summer Enrichment Programs

The Socorro Independent School District has been awarded a $1.4 million 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant from the Texas Education Agency.

The grant will allow the district to enhance its afterschool and summer academic enrichment programs providing students an additional safe learning opportunity while school is not in session.

The federally funded program, also called Texas Afterschool Centers on Education or Texas ACE, will provide students in grades K-12 additional opportunities to access programs and activities that reinforce the regular academic program. It will help students meet state and local standards in core academic subjects, such as reading and math.

Team SISD is one of 51 entities in the state to earn the grant and the only school district in the region to be eligible for four years of grant funding.

The grant will be used to implement the Texas ACE program at Campestre, H.D. Hilley, Hueco, Escontrias and Rojas elementary schools; Escontrias Early Childhood Center; Desert Wind and Ernesto Serna K-8 schools; and Salvador H. Sanchez and Socorro middle schools.

“We are grateful to have been awarded the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which will enable us to continue our efforts to ensure every student succeeds,” said Superintendent José Espinoza, Ed.D. “The additional learning time and support will have a positive impact on our students, helping them become effective communicators, providing them experiences to collaborate with their peers on projects, and developing their creative and critical thinking skills.”

Through the Texas ACE program, SISD will offer 15 additional hours of literacy, science, technology, engineering, arts and math courses weekly during the school year. In the summer, additional services will be offered four hours daily, for six weeks.

The funding will start August 1, 2018 and will run through July 2021. To learn more about Texas ACE, visit the TEA website or click here.

Texas Education Agency Penalizes Testing Vendor Over STAAR Glitches

The Texas Education Agency will levy a $100,000 financial penalty against the New Jersey-based company that develops and administers standardized tests, after tens of thousands of Texas students were kicked out of the testing software or encountered connection problems while taking computerized State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams in April and May.

The state agency will solicit bids for a new contract in June, seeking a new company to replace the Educational Testing Service once its four-year, $280 million contract ends in August 2019. This spring’s testing issues come two years after ETS flubbed the administration of the STAAR exam in 2016 and Texas schools saw numerous logistical issues with online testing, scoring results and shipping of tests.

ETS representatives did not immediately return requests for comment.

Fifth and eighth graders affected by the testing glitches who failed their math or reading tests will not have to re-take the tests in June in order to be promoted to the next grade. Schools will be allowed to use “local discretion” in order to decide which students can be promoted and which should be held back, said TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson.

Test results for students affected by the glitches will not be taken into account in campus or district accountability ratings this August, unless their scores would help their district’s ratings.

After 2016’s glitches, the education agency forced ETS to pay $5.7 million in “liquidated damages” and asked it to invest $15 million of its own money to address the numerous logistical issues that plagued test-takers that spring, including online testing and shipping, test scoring and reporting results.

“I believe this combination of liquidated damages with an additional financial commitment from ETS reflects the correct balance of accountability for the recent past and safeguards for the future,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said at the time.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

More than Half of Texas Public School Students are in Districts Where Teacher Certification isn’t Required

More than half of Texas public school students are in districts that don’t require teachers to be certified, according to state officials, due to a recent law giving schools more freedom on educational requirements.

A 2015 law lets public schools access exemptions from requirements such as teacher certification, school start dates and class sizes — the same exemptions allowed for open enrollment charter schools. Using a District of Innovation plan, districts can create a comprehensive educational program and identify provisions under Texas law that would inhibit their goals.

Data from the Texas Education Agency found that 604 rural and urban districts with innovation plans have received an exemption from teacher certification so far. Texas Association of School Boards spokesperson Dax Gonzalez said most of those districts are using the exemption so industry specialists — such as engineers, nurses and law enforcement officials — can offer hands-on learning to students in career and technology classes.

But the move has some education experts worried that districts are laying the groundwork for having uncertified teachers handle core subjects like math, science and language arts, despite a promise not to do so. Although uncertified educators have been able to teach core classes through waivers and permits, those are approved on a case-by-case basis.

Usually, in order to teach in Texas classrooms, candidates must obtain certification by earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, completing an educator preparation program, passing the appropriate teacher certification exams, being fingerprinted for a national criminal background check and submitting a state application.

In Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, Tim Soto is one of eight uncertified teachers, all responsible for career and technology courses. The electronic technician was hired to teach classes on hands-on tool usage and safety and electrical field practices.

This is Soto’s first year as a teacher, but he has worked for Harlingen CISD for 26 years as an apprentice electrician and a technology specialist. Soto, a college graduate, said he “jumped at the chance” to to give back to the district. And, he said, he’s received nothing but support from other teachers and his students’ parents in creating his curriculum.

“I was nervous, but things just fell into place,” Soto said. “I’ve found that my years of experience are invaluable for students. Instead of having them just read out of a textbook, I can show them how to use the proper tools and help them avoid making mistakes as an apprentice.”

But districts aren’t required to limit the exemption to only career and technology courses. The blanket certification exemption legally allows them to hire uncertified teachers for staple classes like Algebra I or Biology, and even for special education or early childhood classes.

“We don’t want it to expand,” said Kate Kuhlmann, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “There are a lot of people that have great content knowledge, but it’s also really important they have a strong understanding of and training in what it means to be a teacher.”

Because there are already avenues around teacher certification — such as waivers and permits that have to be accepted by TEA, the commissioner of education or the school board — a broader exemption should not be necessary, said Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson Clay Robison. Robison called the innovation plan exemption a way for districts to “cut corners” without the same accountability.

Many states have responded to a national teacher shortage by allowing emergency-type hires, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, a research and policy associate with the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in California. More than 100,000 teachers were unqualified based on their state’s certification standards, according to data between 2015 and 2017, Carver-Thomas said.

But Texas exemption standards are among the broadest nationally, Kuhlmann said. Many states just offer permits or waivers for districts that need to fill classrooms with uncertified teachers. And while states like Kansas and Alabama have innovation district models that offer a teacher certification exemption, Kuhlmann said they have built-in parameters for how many districts can qualify and what classes fall under the exemption.

Still, receiving a response for case-by-case applications in Texas can take nearly a month, and there’s always the possibility of being rejected. And unlike the permit or waiver process, choosing exemptions under a District of Innovation plan involves community input, two-thirds buy-in from the district’s board of trustees and approval from a district-level decision-making committee, said Bruce Gearing, Dripping Springs ISD’s superintendent.

Gearing said he doesn’t foresee his district hiring uncertified teachers outside of career and technical education. Even if that need arises, he said, the district would have to go through a public amendment process to change the implementation of the teacher certification exemption.

“It’s about trust,” Gonzalez, the TASB spokesperson, said. “You either trust local school boards and administrations to go out and find the best teachers for students, or you don’t. And again, this exemption just allows a flexibility that charter schools already have.”

The Texas State Teachers Association, the Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas Association of School Boards have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: RISHIKA DUGYALA – The Texas Tribune

TEA Taps Socorro, Canutillo ISD’s Early College High Schools for National Honors

Socorro Independent School District’s Mission Early College High School (MECHS) and Canutillo ISD’s Northwest Early College High School (NWECHS) have been nominated by the Texas Education Agency for national 2018 Blue Ribbon School honors.

For 2018, MECHS was nominated for the Exemplary High-Performing School category. The school was the first early college high school to open in the El Paso region and was previously designated as a national Blue Ribbon School in 2012.

Canutillo ISD’s Northwest Early College High School (NWECHS), also nominated in the Exemplary High-Performing category, has earned a list of accolades as the school celebrates its 10-year anniversary.

“This nomination is truly a defining moment in my career as an educator. We have made such progress here and have impacted so many student lives. I could not be more proud of the work that we do; work that could not be accomplished without the dedication of a wonderful faculty and staff”, said Tracy Speaker-Gerstheimer, Principal at Northwest Early College High School

In addition to SISD and CISDs’ nominations, the Texas Education Agency announced the nomination of 24 other Texas public schools for national 2018 Blue Ribbon Schools recognition.

“Northwest and Mission Early College High Schools continue to set the standard for early college high schools, not only in our region and the state, but nationwide.” Tonie Badillo, EPCC Dean of Dual Credit and Early College High Schools said. “We are very proud of their achievement in being named Blue Ribbon Schools nominees.”

Each nominated school has an economically disadvantaged population of 39 percent or greater.

The nominated schools must now complete a rigorous application process through the U.S. Department of Education. Announcements of the national award winners will be made in September 2018.  Schools that receive the award are recognized at the Blue Ribbon Schools awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Click here to learn more about the national Blue Ribbon program. 

The nominated schools in Texas (by district or charter) for 2018 include:

Exemplary High-Performing Schools

  • Alief Montessori Community School – Alief Montessori Community School (Houston)
  • Canutillo ISD – Northwest Early College High School
  • Devers ISD – Devers Elementary School
  • Houston ISD (3) – Challenge Early College High School; Debakey High School for Health Professions; East Early College High School
  • La Joya ISD – Jimmy Carter Early College High School
  • Mercedes ISD – Mercedes Early College
  • Mumford ISD – Mumford Elementary School
  • Socorro ISD – Mission Early College High School
  • Valley View ISD (2) – Valley View Elementary School; Valley View South Elementary School
  • Walcott ISD – Walcott Elementary School

Exemplary Achievement-Gap-Closing Schools

  • Arrow Academy – Arrow Academy-Liberation Academy (Meadows Place)
  • Edinburg CISD (2) – Anne L. Magee Elementary School; Hargill Elementary School
  • Golden Rule Charter School – Golden Rule School-Sunnyside Campus (Dallas)
  • Harlingen CISD – Dishman Elementary School
  • Hidalgo ISD – J.C Kelly Elementary School
  • IDEA Public Schools – IDEA Mission Academy (Mission)
  • Lamar CISD – Jackson Elementary School
  • Laredo ISD – J. Kawas Elementary School
  • Nacogdoches ISD – Nettie Marshall Academy of Dual Language
  • Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD (2) – Carmen Anaya Elementary School; Cesar Chavez Elementary School
  • Robstown ISD – San Pedro Elementary School

Founded in 1982, Blue Ribbon Schools is a U.S. Department of Education program that recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where exemplary progress has been made toward closing achievement gaps among subpopulations while maintaining high achievement levels among all students.

 

Special Education Caps Were the Texas Legislature’s Idea, Educators Say

After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their “dereliction of duty” in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.

“We weren’t derelict: The state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. “We were following what they put in place.”

In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

“Another method that states use to control special education costs is to impose caps either on the number of students who can be identified as eligible for special education services or amount of available state dollars,” the legislative report said, as part of a breakdown of how Texas funds special education compared to other states.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires Texas to identify and provide services for all children with disabilities between ages 3 and 21 in the state. The federal government is currently paying about 16 percent of special education costs across the country.

The committee’s report recommended the Legislature “determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services.”

It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.

That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.

Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. “We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population,” he said.

TEA continued Sunday to deny allegations that it told districts to cap special education services at 8.5 percent. “The Texas Education [Agency] has been consistent with its position regarding this indicator. Our agency’s focus now is meeting the Governor’s directive to draft a corrective action plan to address the issues identified in the monitoring report,” said Gene Acuna, TEA spokesperson, in a statement Sunday.

Soon after the federal report came out last week, Abbott demanded Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath develop a remediation plan for special education within seven days. “The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students, and the failure of the TEA to hold districts accountable, are worth criticism,” he said.

School groups immediately pushed back against that characterization, arguing that educators were following TEA’s demands to cut back services, and had faced state cuts that limited the quality of special education.

“Special education administrators are tasked with leading their staff to provide the best possible services with limited resources, limited training, and inconsistent guidance. It is not a dereliction of duty to follow a directive from your state regulatory agency, while at the same time trying to meet the needs of all students,” said Kristin McGuire, government relations director of the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education, in a statement last week.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded Thursday that Texas violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were properly evaluated and provided with an adequate public education. [Full story]
  • Now that the Texas Education Agency has terminated a controversial no-bid contract aimed at improving special education services, critics are questioning how a relatively unknown Georgia company got the job in the first place. [Full story]
  • Rio Grande Valley parents and educators told federal and state officials Tuesday that school districts lacked knowledge and resources to get students special education services that comply with federal law. [Full story]

Author:  ALIYYA SWABY –  The Texas Tribune

Eleven Texas School Boards Ordered to the Classroom

The Texas Education Agency told 11 school boards and superintendents they must take special training because their plans for fixing underperforming schools haven’t made the grade.

The superintendents and elected school boards of 11 Texas districts — including Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth — have been ordered by the state education agency to attend two-day training programs to learn how to fix their failing schools.

Deputy Commissioner of Education A.J. Crabill sent letters to the 11 school boards Oct. 10 saying they need additional governance training because their districts submitted unsatisfactory plans for turning around floundering campuses. All 11 superintendents and boards have agreed to the training, with several members expressing frustration about what they saw as an unfair and vague request.

The letters were sent about two months after TEA released 2016 accountability ratings showing that 467 campuses statewide — including 42 in the targeted districts — were labeled “improvement required,” a decrease from 603 campuses last year. The notices were sent to Brazosport, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Fort Worth, Hearne, Houston, Lubbock, Midland, Nacogdoches, Tyler and Waco.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has promised to crack down on low-performing schools and to halve the number of failing schools over the next five years.

State law requires districts to submit detailed plans in the spring to fix problems at schools labeled “improvement required” for two or more consecutive years. The districts are supposed to include parents and the community in drafting the proposed fixes.

Morath has the final say on approving the plans — by mid-to -late June, according to a TEA timeline — so districts can start implementing them the following school year.

But for the 11 school districts, that implementation will have to wait until board trustees and superintendents attend a two-day, 24-hour governance training session.

In the letters, Crabill said he wasn’t sure the plans the districts submitted would address problems — including low test scores, low graduation rates, high dropout rates, and poor college readiness — within two years. The training sessions will help trustees identify and fix weaknesses in their plans, the letter said.

If Morath decides not to approve a plan, he can replace the board of trustees, replace the principal of a school or shut the school down completely, Crabill wrote.

Houston Independent School District’s board of trustees told Crabill it will likely vote to attend the training. But it also admonished the agency for leaving little time to actually turn around its schools. The commissioner said he would respond to the plans in June, and now may not approve them until trainings are completed in December.

“Our ability to make significant changes to the plans for these seven schools at this date may be somewhat limited,” the Houston board wrote Oct. 25. “Since TEA has missed its own published deadline for responding to the turnaround plans by four months, we ask that you provide us with specific concerns that TEA may have with the plans for these seven schools, so that we may begin considering how to make any appropriate adjustments in a way that will cause the least disruption during the school year.”

At an Oct. 27 Dallas Independent School District board meeting, a few trustees said the request for training was too vague.

“While I don’t have a problem with training, I do have a problem with a demand that I implement what it is we are going to be trained on, when I don’t even know what it is,” said trustee Joyce Foreman. “We need to know the specifics of what is wrong. We need to know specifics about the training. We need to know specifics of why these eight schools.”

The commissioner did approve campus turnaround plans in other districts around the state, TEA spokesperson Lauren Callahan said. She could not say what the difference was between those plans and the ones the commissioner flagged.

After receiving a flood of questions from district officials across the state, Crabill included a few key explanations in a follow up email to all 11 superintendents. He slashed the training from four days to two, after trustees said it was too hard for them to fit into their schedules. He presented six different dates and locations for the training, in Kilgore, Waco, Fort Worth, Midland, El Paso and Houston, on weekdays and weekends between Nov. 9 and Dec. 17.

All trustees and superintendents from all 11 boards must attend the entire workshop, Crabill said.

“This is a team event so just like in other team events, the whole team has to win together. Completion means that all trustees and the superintendent were present at the same workshop for the entirety of the workshop,” Crabill wrote.

Though all 11 boards have agreed to attend the training, it is not clear whether all trustees will show up.

A veteran Lubbock board trustee said he voted yes to the resolution agreeing to training – but now he’s not sure whether he will actually attend. He called the demand for governance training “unprecedented” in his 14 years on the board.

He said he is not sure whether he can get away from his day job for two 12-hour days. Districts have to cover the cost of any travel required for board members to attend the training session.

TEA does not have a plan in place in case board members don’t show up, Callahan said. “So far, TEA is receiving confirmation that board members will attend and complete the training. As a result, discussions on failure to participate have not been necessary,” she wrote in a statement Tuesday. “Any talk of penalties is premature.”

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday outlined plans to crack down harder on chronically low-performing schools, saying he wants to cut in half the number of them that end up on the state’s failing list over the next five years.
  • More Texas school districts and charter schools are failing in 2016, though the number of individual campuses that received that label decreased.

Author:  ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

State Representative Calls for Suspension of Texas’ STAAR Exam

A state representative who has passed legislation aimed at reeling in Texas’ standardized testing regime is calling on the state to ditch required STAAR exams while it “tries to iron out STAAR’s many kinks.”

State Rep. Jason Isaac’s proposal comes the week after the Texas Education Agency announced it was penalizing the New Jersey-based company that develops and administers the controversial exams more than $20 million over problems that surfaced during springtime testing —including computer glitches that caused students to lose answers. It is the first year Educational Testing Services has overseen STAAR administration after the state scrapped the bulk of its longtime contract with London-based Pearson Education.

“Flawed testing practices threaten the State of Texas’ ability to fulfill our education system’s goals — and our children’s futures,” Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said in a statement Monday. “The litany of errors being uncovered about STAAR is simply a disservice to our students, hard-working teachers, and families.”

While the state works with ETS to resolve the issues, Isaac suggested “schools be given the freedom to choose from a variety of nationally normed standardized tests.”

“School districts should not be hampered by an inefficient and ineffective system,” Isaac said. “Adding a dose of free-market philosophy to education by allowing a variety of standardized test options can only drive down costs and improve quality.”

Isaac told The Texas Tribune he will file legislation next year that would allow school districts to use something like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills instead of STAAR. He filed a similar bill in 2013.

Last year, Isaac co-authored a bill that passed overwhelmingly requiring that 85 percent of elementary and middle school students be able to complete STAAR exams within two or three hours (two hours for 3rd through 5th grade; three hours for 6th through 8th grade.) House Bill 743 took effect last June.

A group of parents is suing the education agency, alleging it did not comply with the law this year.

“I hope my colleagues will join me when the 85th Legislative Session convenes in seeking transformational changes that will ensure that testing is a benefit, not a burden, to Texas’ students, teachers, and families,” Isaac said.

The legislative session begins in January.

Read more about the contentious STAAR exams:

Disclosure: Educational Testing Service and Pearson have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

School Finance Dividing Lines Emerge at Hearing

The fault lines that will define efforts to improve the state’s system of funding education came into sharp focus Wednesday as a Senate panel began studying how to improve the “efficiency” of public schools in Texas.

The 11-member Senate Education Committee and a hearing room full of education professionals, lobbyists and school and minority advocates generally agreed that the Legislature should scrap the way it divvies up the more than $40 billion of state money now spent on public schools.

“You’ve basically gotta blow it up,” said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which represents property-poor school districts.

There was little such agreement, however, on what to do instead.

Conservative lawmakers, expressing exasperation with suggestions that the state isn’t spending enough on schools, have begun searching for a system of benchmarks that would tie state funds to how schools perform, not primarily how many students they enroll.

Educators and advocates from small schools and poor districts fear the stage is being set to sacrifice struggling schools on the altar of “efficiency” and argue lawmakers should close the wide gaps between districts before using money to reward or punish districts.

“Looking at the numbers, you know, 2015 was the most money that the state of Texas has ever spent in the history of the state on a per-student basis and we still have people coming and complaining we’re not spending enough, and it’s just so frustrating,” said state Sen. Van Taylor, a Plano Republican. “When’s enough enough?”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick instructed the panel to re-examine school finance before a May state Supreme Court decision that upheld the school finance system as constitutional but urged lawmakers to overhaul a process it described as flawed and byzantine.

In what could be the only hearing on the issue, Wednesday’s meeting gravitated toward the points of friction that have long bedeviled such explorations.

School officials, Latino groups and some Democrats on the panel questioned the GOP focus on efficiency, saying ranking schools by academic and financial performance is fraught with inaccuracy and inequity unless the state first closes vast funding gaps among districts or increases funding for schools.

“I believe it would be very difficult to fairly and accurately create and maintain a system in which all districts would be adequately measured, compared and grouped, and I believe previous attempts to create these comparison groups have been unreliable at best,” said Johnny Hill, assistant superintendent for business, financial and auxiliary services for Lake Travis schools who testified on behalf of the Fast Growth Schools Coalition and the Texas Association of School Business Officials.

But the panel’s Republican members said finding a way to tie funding to performance needs to be explored now.

“It’s all about productivity,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who chairs the panel. “And I don’t think we’re looking at cutting any spending, but we’ve got to do as well as we can with the money we have.”

Officials from several companies, and one university researcher, testified about ranking systems they have developed to compare the money schools spend to student academic performance. They argued that public education overall would improve if lower-performing school districts were required to mimic the best practices of the most efficient school districts.

Some lawmakers and educators pushed back, saying it would be unfair to place the same expectations for academic and financial performance on smaller, poorer districts with needier students than larger, wealthier ones with less poverty.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he wasn’t sure how lawmakers could feasibly require a tiny district like Fort Davis in West Texas to mimic the practices of a larger, better-funded district. It has had to cut its UIL program because of lack of funding, he said.

The education panel will publish official recommendations ahead of the 2017 legislative session.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

Parents Sue Texas Education Agency Over STAAR Exams

A backlash against this year’s STAAR exams escalated Monday when a group of parents sued the state in an attempt to keep schools from using 2016 test scores to rate students — including deciding whether students should advance to the next grade or attend summer school.

The lawsuit, filed against the Texas Education Agency in Travis County district court, argues that this year’s scores are invalid because the exams were not administered under parameters laid out inHouse Bill 743. The legislation, passed last year with bipartisan support, requires the state to design STAAR exams so that a majority of elementary and middle school students can complete them within a certain period of time (two hours for third– through fifth-graders and three hours for sixth- through eighth-graders.)

The law was set to take effect during the 2015-16 school year, but the education agency has taken a phased-in compliance approach. Fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests administered this spring were revamped to comply with the law, but the rest of the exams were not.

“TEA will gather data during the spring 2016 administrations to determine how to adjust the remaining grades 3-8 assessments to meet the testing time requirements of HB 743,” according to the agency’s website. “The remaining redesigned grades 3-8 assessments will be administered beginning in spring 2017.”

Spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe declined to comment late Monday, saying the education agency hadn’t yet been served with the lawsuit.

“Despite knowing that the assessments did not comply with statute, and despite a lead time of over nine months to comply, the TEA failed and refused to develop assessments that comply with the statute,” according to Monday’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of four parents from Houston, Wimberley, Austin and Orangefield, who are members of a grassroots group calledThe Committee to Stop STAAR.

“As a result, approximately 2 [million] Texas students were administered illegal assessments. The results of these illegal assessments are now being used to enact punitive measures against students, teachers and schools across the state.”

Scott Placek, the lead attorney on the case, said at a Monday news conference that the parents decided to sue last week after Education Commissioner Mike Morath told The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith in an interview that the agency still was planning to only scrap scores from more than 14,000 STAAR exams affected by a computer glitch.

Despite numerous other reported problems, Morath has said there is not enough evidence to exclude all other exams from the state’s accountability system, although he said the agency is still looking into the issue.

In a letter to Morath this month, the Texas Association of School Administrators outlineddozens of issues districts had reported with this year’s STAAR administration, including inaccurate scoring and tests being shipped to the wrong location.

This is the first school year that New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service developed and administered the STAAR exam after the state scrapped its longtime contract with London-based Pearson, which had held the contract since Texas began requiring state student assessments in the 1980s. ETS is known for administering the graduate school admissions test, known as the GRE.

The Committee to Stop STAAR has raised more than $20,000 online to help fund its legal efforts. The Houston Federation of Teachers provided a matching grant.

“Donors to the campaign are a diverse group of parents, grandparents, teachers and concerned citizens from around the state who demand action after the TEA ignored the common sense reforms that many felt they had won during last year’s legislative session,” according to a news release. “Fundraising began on March 30, 2016—the same week as the first administration of this year’s STAAR.”

Disclosure: Educational Testing Service, the Texas Association of School Administrators and Pearson have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues

Tiny district to offer first four-day school week in Texas

One of the smallest school districts in Texas will make history this fall as it transitions to a predominately four-day school week — the first of its kind in the state.

Olfen Independent School District, a kindergarten-through-eighth grade district outside San Angelo that boasts 56 students, approved the new schedule earlier this month. Olfen officials cited a new law passed by the Legislature allowing districts more flexibility in setting calendars.

“We think this is going to be something great for our students and something that can also benefit a lot of parents out there,” said Olfen Superintendent Gabriel Zamora. “I just saw the possibility, once the law was passed and everything. I never thought I would be in the district that had the right circumstances.”

The Olfen school board unanimously voted Jan. 12 to approve the change for the 2016-2017 school year. The new schedule includes four mandatory instructional days and an optional day on Friday. Students who do not receive passing marks on progress reports will be required to attend school on Fridays to receive tutoring, while passing students will have the choice to stay home. A handful of weeks during the year will have a full five days of instruction.

Zamora, who compared the optional day to “Super Saturdays” in other districts, said it would include a few hours of tutoring in the morning and activities such as karate, tumbling and pottery in the afternoon.

Zamora proposed the change after the Legislature last spring passed a law altering how the state defines a school year. The law requires districts to have at least 75,600 minutes of instruction each year instead of the previously stipulated 180 days.

The new Olfen ISD calendar will have 160 class days that total more than 77,000 minutes, according to Zamora. The district will increase the duration of each school day by 25 minutes.

“The purpose of the bill was to offer traditional independent school districts more flexibility and local control,” said the bill’s author, state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian. “Every school district has different needs.”

DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, confirmed that Olfen is the first school district in the state to offer a four-day week schedule, although others have unsuccessfully pushed for a similar schedule in the past.

“Olfen is a really small district, so the chances of something like this working at a Houston or a Dallas ISD, I don’t know,” she said. “It would certainly be something a district could explore.”

Zamora said the schedule is compatible with the unique needs of his rural district, where only one student lives within the district boundary.

The location of Rowena, Texas, shown on a classroom map at Olfen ISD School.
The location of Rowena, Texas, shown on a classroom map at Olfen ISD School. / photo by: Cooper Neil

Ramon Cavazos, who teaches social studies, Spanish and special education for the older students in the district, said he was initially skeptical of the new schedule but now he sees it as an opportunity to improve individual students’ needs.

“This is my seventh year here, and this has always been an issue with us because we are, in some cases, up to 35 miles away from a student’s home,” Cavazos said. That distance means if the school wanted to offer tutoring after school, it would need to run an additional bus route, he added.

“This is going to give us the opportunity to pull those students in on Friday,” he said.

Darlene Ortega, who has two children and one grandchild in the district, said she thinks the new schedule is a “great idea.” She said she will be sending her children to school on Fridays regardless of their grades, in part because of the extracurricular programs the district plans to offer.

Cavazos said his older students have already expressed a desire to improve their grades so they can stay home on Fridays.

“I see it as an apple and stick approach, as far as the student’s side is concerned,” he said. “If you want the apple, then get with the program. If you want the stick, then don’t do your work because you’re going to come in on Friday. Eventually, you’re going to get what you need either way.”

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Socorro ISD’s 2014-15 campus ‘report cards’ now on-line

The Socorro Independent School District is committed to providing a relevant and rigorous education for all students so that they are prepared for success in college, careers and life.

Team SISD is also dedicated to ensuring transparency and accountability to keep all district stakeholders informed of policies, procedures and assessments in our schools.

In order for parents and stakeholders to learn about the progress and success at SISD campuses, the State of Texas 2014–15 School Report Cards are now available on the SISD website and on the Texas Education Agency website. A print version also is available upon request at district schools or the District Service Center.

This is a report required by the Texas Legislature and prepared by the Texas Education Agency. It is to be shared with the parent or guardian of every child enrolled in a Texas public school. The report provides information concerning student performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), as well as information on student enrollment, class size averages, and financial expenditures.

The information contained in the School Report Cards is required by state law and is briefly described in the “2014–15 School Report Card Definitions.” The report for each school may or may not have all the information described, because the information presented depends on whether the school is an elementary, middle, or high school.

State law requires that the school report card display information about the state, the district, and the school. Where possible, the information must be reported by race/ethnicity and socio-economic status of the students and must include at least two years of results.

The School Report Cards can be found at http://tea.texas.gov/perfreport/src/index.html

A more complete report about each school, the Texas Academic Performance Report (TAPR), is available by contacting each school’s front office or can be accessed online at https://rptsvr1.tea.texas.gov/perfreport/tapr/index.html

Parents and/or guardians may contact their child’s school if they have any questions concerning the campus report card. Working together, Team SISD is committed to ensure all students are Tomorrow’s Leaders Learning Today.

Education Chief: Texas’ future depends on success of “Brown and Black Kids”

Mike Morath, a 38-year-old North Texas businessman-turned public education devotee and school choice advocate, is Texas’ new education commissioner. Gov. Greg Abbott last month named the sophomore Dallas school district trustee to head the massive Texas Education Agency, lauding him as a “proven education reformer” and “change agent.”

Known for his controversial — and ultimately unsuccessful — effort to free the Dallas school district of most state controls, Morath’s appointment was a tip of the hat to the school reform movement, a diverse group of homeschoolers, business-backed accountability groups, charter school advocates, and voucher proponents.

Meanwhile, teacher and school groups — offended by Morath’s effort to turn the Dallas school district into a home-rule district — have mostly decried his appointment to a position overseeing the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charter schools.

But in a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune this month, Morath spoke passionately about empowering — and learning from — teachers and principals. One of the first big things on his to-do list, he said, is soaking up “the knowledge and wisdom of the practitioners of the field.” He also said he wants to focus limited state resources on struggling schools while leaving high performers alone.

Morath said he has no plans to implement any of the reform policies he pushed in Dallas statewide, contending that the state is too diverse for any one-size-fits-all approach — aside from its accountability system.

He said he will spend much of his first year on the job developing rules for legislation passed last year that made big changes to the state’s accountability system — greatly reducing the weight standardized test scores are given in measuring public school performance — and also requires school campuses be publicly labeled with A-through-F letter grades based on academic performance.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Tribune: What is on your to-do list? And what’s your general, 30,000-foot-view vision for the job?

Mike Morath: There’s much that I have to learn about the agency, in particular — so much that I have to learn from superintendents. But generally, I think the three priorities that I want to spend most of my attention on are this accountability system — the framework for outcomes discussions for our schools and for our students is pretty critical, so I want to spend a lot of time around that. I want to make sure that the agency is as effective a resource as possible in the area of supporting educators — you know, we live and die with the efforts of our teachers. They are the lifeblood of our school systems, and so: Are there ways for us to better support educators around the state — and how? And then, last, just the agency itself — blocking and tackling of the efficiency of the agency, the culture of the agency in terms of being of service to school systems around the state, having a mindset that focuses on improving performance rather than compliance.

TT: When you talk about better supporting teachers, what do you mean?

MM: Certainly the professional development and resources that we offer and make available for them, providing the best-in-class instructional materials for them. One thing that I think is important is simply stability. Teachers get yanked around a lot because we change this standard and we change this instructional practice or we change this or that and so is there a way that we at the agency can say, “Let’s try to go in one direction for five years so our teachers are not toyed with in that fashion.”

TT: Before Gov. Abbott appointed you to head the Texas Education Agency, he had appointed you to head a special legislative commission that will recommend new ways to assess students and hold schools accountable. What were you planning to bring to the table in terms of school accountability? And what approach will you take in developing this new, A-through-F accountability system? 

MM: This is the big conversation. If we want to improve outcomes (for students), we need to have some sort of shared framework — a common vocabulary, if you will — to discuss outcomes. Otherwise, we don’t know whether we’re improving outcomes. In order for us to get there, there are three pretty critical ingredients. It’s got to be clear — people have to understand what it is. It has to be fair to account for the diversity of the state of Texas. And it has to be sort of precise or nuanced enough to differentiate between ‘good, better, best’ kind of performance. Specifics I’m not prepared to talk about today, but that’s the general framework through which we need to look at that discussion.

TT: As far as student assessment goes, what can you say about the state’s current testing regime, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR? Do you agree with your predecessor’s decision to increase passing standards despite stagnant performance on that exam?  

MM: I absolutely support the direction that the agency has been going.

I think I need to have a lot more conversations with educators around the state. We want these assessments to be helpful for teachers, for principals, for school district officials, for school board members, for parents. If they’re not helpful, then what can we do to make them more helpful? And perhaps they are helpful, they’re just not helpful for everybody right now, so there’s a lot of nuance that has to be learned.

TT: In announcing your appointment, Gov. Abbott described you as a “change agent” and “proven education reformer,” referring to your work as a trustee on the Dallas school board. Are there any policies you pushed in Dallas that you think should be implemented statewide?

MM: The diversity of the state of Texas is such that I don’t think it’s wise to think of anything being deployed statewide, with the exception of a broadly understood outcomes framework. The way that you achieve those outcomes is going to have to be adapted to the conditions of local communities all over the state, so I’m certainly very proud of certain things that we’ve done in Dallas, and I think that those are replicable, but not necessarily everywhere.

TT: There were a lot of mentions — even by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — at a recent policy forum about your age and how young you look. Your detractors note you have only served one full term on a school board. What do you say to people who think you’re too young, too inexperienced to do this job?

MM: Clean living and a pure heart keeps me looking young. [Laughs.]

I think I’m going to have to prove it in my job performance, so let me let my work speak for itself. And if they’re right, then hopefully they’ll find somebody better than me, and if they’re not right, then our kids will benefit. I have a variety of things that I could say as to why that’s not necessarily true, but what I say isn’t important, it’s the actions that I take to try to help kids in this state.

TT: Did serving on the Dallas school board prepare you sufficiently for this job? 

[Pauses.] Yes. [Laughs.]

TT: What things did you learn in that role that will help you in this one?

MM: I learned massive volumes of things in that role. (Dallas ISD is the) second largest school system (in the state) — about 225 campuses that range from a few low-poverty to a large number of high-poverty campuses, different academic focuses, different grade configurations, all kinds of logistical issues, all kinds of community communications issues.

TT: The state’s K-12 student population has become increasingly poor and diverse in recent decades. How should the state address this trend?

MM: The future of the state is delivering great results for brown and black kids, period. So we need to focus on delivering great results for brown and black kids while ensuring great results for everybody.

TT: What’s the biggest problem with the state’s education system? 

MM: There’s not an answer to that question. Again, I think you have to have a comprehensive framework. Anybody that tells you that there is a silver bullet — that you do this and our schools will get better, you do this and our kids will get better — I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. You have to have a comprehensive, thoughtful, long-term approach. You have to move with a burning sense of patience on behalf of our kids.

TT: You’ve talked about the need for the state to focus resources on low-performing schools. Can you elaborate on that?

MM: The state is not all-powerful and has limited resources — the state agency, in particular — and so we need to try to get out of the way of all of our school systems that are getting results and focus our effort on the schools and the systems that are truly struggling.

TT: I have to ask about the mountain climbing. (In announcing Morath’s appointment, Gov. Abbott specifically mentioned Morath’s experience leading climbs as a reason he would be good for the job.) 

MM: I love climbing. So much of what I do is too complicated to see results in a very clear period of time, but with mountain climbing, it’s simply you and God’s creation, and it’s extremely painful and very rewarding. It’s a religious experience.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas Gets ‘No Child Left Behind’ Waiver, with a Caveat

Texas public schools will get a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements — as long as the state can ensure its schools are using teacher and principal evaluation systems that meet federal standards by January.

After two years of negotiations, the U.S. Department of Education notified the Texas Education Agency Tuesday that it had granted conditional approval of the state’s waiver request Tuesday. But it remains unclear whether the ongoing standoff between the state and the federal government over educator evaluations has come to an end.

As the education agency announced the decision, Commissioner Michael Williams said the state was not changing its position on allowing local school districts to make decisions on using evaluation systems of their choosing.

“Throughout the waiver application process, I have made it clear to federal officials that I do not have, nor will I ever seek, the authority to compel local school districts to use one uniform teacher and principal evaluation system statewide,” Williams said in a statement. “Our state believes strongly in local control of our schools. As a result, we will continue discussing this specific point with the U.S. Department of Education, but they should not expect any shift in Texas’ position.”

Without the federal waiver, nearly all of the state’s school districts could be subject to sanctions, including forced restructuring, for failing to meet the law’s requirement that 100 percent of students pass reading and math exams. The state could also risk losing billions in federal funding for low-income students.

In late January, federal education officials rejected a new educator evaluation system currently being piloted by the state in part because it did not require all school districts to use student achievement on standardized tests to measure teacher performance. Williams noted Wednesday that while most Texas school districts — 86 percent — use the statewide evaluation system, they do so voluntarily.

In remarks earlier this year, Williams suggested Texas might “go the way of California” when it came to the waiver. California is among the handful of states that have lost or been denied waivers because they’ve declined to make changes demanded by the federal government.

A new evaluation system consistent with federal guidelines was a condition that federal officials set in place in September 2013 when it granted Texas its initial waiver from the law.

Congress is currently in the process of rewriting the 2001 law, and it is unclear how the final version will handle teacher evaluations.

Author:   – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, pol itics, government and statewide issues.

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