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Workforce Commissioner: Education Testing System is Broken

Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said he disagrees with a coalition of business leaders who said it would oppose any additional funding to public education if the existing accountability system is rolled back.

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Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken said Thursday that the state's current public education accountability system is "broken and badly in need of fixing."

During testimony at a hearing of the House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development on career and technology education, the former state GOP chairman expressed his disagreement with a coalition of business leaders and a conservative think tank that announced Wednesday it would oppose any additional funding to public education if there were any rollback of existing accountability standards. 

Pauken, who along with two other commissioners oversees the development of the state's workforce, said he was surprised that the coalition claimed to speak for the business community and conservatives as it defended the existing testing system.

He said he had found widespread agreement among business leaders, teachers, school district officials and community college representatives he had spoken to around the state that "teaching to the test is one of the real reasons that we have a significant skill trade shortage."

Pauken said he spoke as both a businessman and a conservative when he criticized the position taken by the coalition.

"The current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test," Pauken said, adding that a consequence of the system was that "'real learning' has been replaced by 'test learning.'” 

He also cited the worries of school officials that poor performance on the new tests would lead to a higher number of high school dropouts. "Unfortunately, the superintendents are right," he said, pointing to a March op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman by University of Texas professor Carolyn Heinrich that described reasearch on the subject.

Urging the next Legislature to address the testing issue, Pauken said that schools' success could be measured by "certification or licensure" in the chosen career field of students who don't go to college. And for those who went on to a university, he said, by their performance on tests like the SAT or ACT, which he said were "much harder to game." 

The remarks come a day after the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce held a news conference at the Capitol saying its members would not support additional funding to public education if it came with any changes to the existing accountability system. The coalition includes groups influential in the Legislature like the Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Business Leadership Council.

“If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, said at the conference. “We will vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system unless and until we are certain that the current accountability system is going to be maintained.”

Texas students took the state's new standardized tests, the backbone of the new accountability system, for the first time this spring. The rollout of the STAAR exams — which were designed to be more rigorous and closely aligned to curriculum than their predecessors — has drawn frustration from educators, parents and lawmakers about the logistics and costs of their implementation and new rules about the way the tests factor into grading and graduation requirements.

The House Public Education Committee has held two hearings on the topic, in which lawmakers expressed support for doing away with a rule that the exams factor into 15 percent of a student's final grade.  More than 400 school boards have passed a resolution against high-stakes testing, saying that it is “strangling our public schools.” In January, outgoing Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott told a gathering of 4,000 school administrators that testing in the state had become a "perversion of its original intent" and played too great a role in the evaluation of schools' performance.

After lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011, more than half of the school districts in Texas, representing roughly 3.5 million students — or 75 percent of the overall total — have signed on to sue the state. A key part of their argument is that the Legislature has failed to provide enough funding for them to adequately meet the accountability standards it has put in place.

The Texas Association of Business has joined a separate lawsuit against the state related to school funding, one that asks the courts to determine whether the current system is “efficient” as required by the Texas Constitution.

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