At a Friday gathering of educators, school administrators and student assessment specialists in Austin, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced he would defer implementation of a rule that requires state end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of high school students' final grades.
The announcement, which earned a standing ovation in a crowded hotel ballroom, came a day after Gov. Rick Perry declared his support for such a change and as Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed legislation that would permanently leave the decision of whether to apply it up to local school districts.
Making clear that improving the academic performance of Hispanic and black students has become a priority in his short time leading the agency, Williams offered his views on potential changes to the public school accountability, career-and-technology education and the possibility of private school vouchers.
In a wide-ranging address that included biographical details about his public school teacher parents and his time as a prosecutor in Midland, Williams challenged that "the future of Texas is going to be defined by demographics, that demographics is destiny." The claim is one often made by former state demographer and U.S. Census director Steve Murdock, now at Rice University, to highlight the importance of improving educational outcomes for the economically disadvantaged and minority students who already make up the majority of the state's public school populations.
Williams wants the agency to give more weight to how well schools are closing the achievement gap between white and Asian students and Hispanics, African-Americans and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. While the new evaluation system would also look at overall academic performance and improvement, that measure is important, he said, "because it's who we are."
"We have got to be considerate about, determined about, that large part of Texans," he said.
He also cited the achievement of low-income and minority students as a reason for his views on career-and-technology education. While he said he supported more access to the kind of training that would allow students to move directly into the workforce after high school graduation, he said that should happen by increasing the flexibility within current graduation plans — not by creating a separate track. He said the latter could prompt districts to reclassify low-performance students to get around accountability requirements.
"I am old enough to be suspicious of that," he said. "If we have a career track and an advanced one, I am a little concerned about dumping folks in the other one."
During an audience question-and-answer session, Williams also offered his thoughts on the push under way to pass school choice legislation, possibly including private school vouchers, during the next legislative session. He said he has been an outspoken proponent of school choice reform since 1990 — and that "you want to ideally be able to match youngsters with schools that meet their needs."
But he said that in his position as head of the state education agency, it is not his role to champion that policy.
"This 83rd legislative session, that decision is going to be made by the 181 [senators and representatives]. It will not be made by the education commissioner. I have got to be an honest broker of data and evidence," he said. "As a person that has been in many ways been on the front lines of that issue, it behooves me as a regulator now not to be an advocate."
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