Imperiling the state's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act — and potentially renewing a battle over local control of school district policy — the U.S. Department of Education has rejected a new educator evaluation system proposed by Texas officials.
In a letter released Friday by the Texas Education Agency, federal officials presented a list of concerns about the state's approach to principal and teacher evaluations, including a lack of information about how student achievement on standardized tests would be used to measure performance.
While the state is piloting a system that uses standardized tests in a limited way, Texas education officials say they do not have the authority to require districts to use a specific evaluation measure.
"I have always made it clear to federal officials that as part of the waiver process TEA could not exceed its current authority nor would we do anything to erode our state’s strong commitment to local control in public education. My position on this front has not, and will not, change," Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said in a statement.
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The standoff comes amid almost two years of negotiations over the terms of the waiver, which the federal education department granted in September 2013 with the condition that the state continue to develop its teacher evaluation system along federal guidelines. Without the federal waiver, nearly all of the state's school districts would be subject to sanctions, including forced restructuring, for failing to meet the law's requirement that 100 percent of their students pass reading and math exams.
Williams said that meeting many of the federal requirements would require action from state lawmakers — to either pass legislation mandating changes or giving the state education agency the authority to do so.
During the 2013 legislative session, efforts to emphasize student achievement as a part of teacher evaluations stalled. Because of concerns over whether standardized tests could accurately reflect student learning, then-Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick was forced to drop a section from legislation that would have opened the door to tying the test scores to teacher performance.
Such proposals have also faced questions about evaluating teachers whose students aren’t required to take annual standardized tests. Texas students begin taking state standardized exams in third grade. Before they reach high school, they are tested each year in reading and math but less frequently in subjects like science, writing and social studies.
This is the second time federal education officials have asked Texas to revise its approach to teacher evaluation — the first came when the state initially applied for the waiver. Though state officials updated the application to include more details about the new evaluation system's approach to student achievement, the language still said school district participation in a new evaluation system would be voluntary.
The deadline for the state to resubmit its waiver request is March 31.