Almost exactly six years ago, a handful of Texas superintendents were getting together to draft what would amount to a vision statement for the future of public schools.
Among the topics they tackled were student assessments and their role in the state’s accountability system. In the years since what became known as the Visioning Institute formed, debate over the issue has attracted the attention of not just educators but legislators, parents and business leaders.
The document that emerged after two years of their meetings reads like a prelude to the resolution that 80 percent of the state’s districts would sign in 2012 saying that testing is “strangling” Texas public schools, and its echoes can be heard in former Texas Education Agency Education Commissioner Robert Scott’s speech this year when he called for an accountability system that looks at “what happens on every single day in the life of a school besides testing day.”
And now, thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 1557 in the last session, a consortium of school districts whose plan will be based in part on the institute’s work, could offer a way forward as policymakers address the increasingly heated opposition to the state's high-stakes standardized test-based accountability system.
The TEA in September announced the 23 participating districts, ranging from the primarily Hispanic, economically disadvantaged McAllen Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley to the tony Highland Park ISD in Dallas County. At the end of this month, their leaders will present a proposal to the TEA for a pilot program that, pending the approval of the 83rd Legislature, would begin next school year.
The law aims to give the select group of high-performing districts — which were chosen to reflect the wide variety of schools in Texas and represent about 250,000 of the state's almost 5 million public school students — flexibility in turn for the opportunity to explore ways to innovate upon current practices, with an emphasis on digital learning and reducing the number of assessments students take.
In practical terms, that will mean districts in the consortium request waivers from state requirements on the number and kind of standardized tests they administer, said Jeff Turner, the superintendent of Coppell ISD, a participating district. The details of just how that will work, he said, would be sorted out during the consortium’s initial meetings and the legislative session.
“We've got to pull together something that informs the state enough to say that if we go out on this limb that we will provide a great education opportunity for kids in Amarillo, kids in El Paso, kids in Longview, kids in Brownsville, kids in Austin,” Turner said.
With any proposal, the consortium will also have to navigate contentious differences between two equally outspoken camps: those who believe that the success of reform requires a complete reworking of the current system and those who view any changes as a lowering of the rigorous standards established by the Legislature in 2009.
In June, a coalition including the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, held a Capitol news conference to announce that its members would oppose any additional funding to public education if lawmakers approved changes to those standards.
For now, the consortium appears to have skirted opposition from that direction.
“I think this was an honest effort to allow a little pocket of innovation and to have a laboratory to test some new ideas to see how they work,” said Andrew Erben, president of the Texas Institute for Education Reform, a business-oriented education advocacy group that participated in the June news conference.
But Erben cautioned that the districts would still need to do some testing in order to benchmark their progress against others in the state.
“The only way we can tell if this is working is by comparing this to other districts, and we have to use the assessment system to do that,” he said.
Turner said his vision of the pilot program would be structured in a way that would provide that feedback to school communities and taxpayers — while still allowing teachers to put the time they currently spend on test preparation into classroom instruction. And that could be accomplished, he said, in a way that would ultimately be much less expensive for the state.
On the subject of funding, he also had a message for state officials in advance of the next legislative session.
“What you give us we are going to take and use differently if you would just give us the flexibility,” he said. “And we are going to whip you in terms of test scores.”