Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams on Tuesday called on educators to hold the line on the state's accountability system amid what he called a "ranging conversation" at the Legislature about how to address the widespread concerns about the role of high-stakes testing.
"I know we are out there in that desert and it is a transition period," the Texas Education Agency chief said. "But I'm going to ask us to pump our brakes and slow our roll to get through this transition."
During his speech at an annual gathering of school administrators in Austin, he urged the crowd of roughly 3,000 to display courage and not to "give up or move back" as the state continued its transition to the new accountability system.
More than 800 school boards across the state have passed resolutions saying the state overemphasizes standardized testing amid outcry from parents and confusion from school districts as the state moved over to the new system this spring.
That momentum has extended to the Legislature as well. Lawmakers have responded with proposals that range from reducing the exams students must pass to graduate to doing away with state student assessments altogether. In a pointed gesture, the House eliminated spending for testing in its initial budget, and Williams took tough questions from a panel of senators on the topic in a hearing last week.
On Tuesday, Williams said that he recognized the need for increased flexibility in student testing requirements, but that the state needed to preserve what he called the "central line of thinking" in the accountability system, "the business of teaching every kid in every school."
The speech marked the first time the new commissioner, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in August, had addressed the Midwinter Conference put on by the Texas Association of School Administrators. It can be a trying experience for TEA chiefs —though his predecessor received wild cheers last year when he called for a reexamination of the role assessment plays in the state's accountability system, he had chillier receptions there in the past.
But the biggest reaction from the crowd came not from something Williams said in his speech, but to an unidentified audience member who asked a question at the end that earned a standing ovation. He asked the commissioner to fight for the return of the $5.4 billion made in cuts to public education "in the same spirit of fighting the KKK" — referring to a story Williams shared about his early years as a prosecutor in the Reagan Justice Department going after members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In response, Williams reiterated what he had said previously about waiting for the resolution of the school finance lawsuit before taking any action on restoring funding, and that he looked forward to "having the conversation" at that time.
During his remarks, Williams also indicated he would not support changes to the so-called 4X4 high school graduation requirement that students complete four years each in math, science, English and social studies. Many educators — and at least one prominent lawmaker, Sen. Kel Seliger — would like to change that to allow students to choose an emphasis on career and technology or science and math.
Williams said that opportunity could exist within the current structure. "This is not a debate about career or college, this ought to be a debate about both/and," he said, adding that backing away from the rigors of the 4X4 would do "nothing more than put at great risk the futures" of children in the public education system.