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Education Officials Point Fingers over College Readiness

The strained relationship between the state’s higher and public education leaders were on full display Wednesday as Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes told the State Board of Education it isn't doing enough to prepare students for college.

Texas higher education commissioner Raymund Paredes during symposium at Baylor University in Waco, Texas

The strained relationship between the state’s higher and public education leaders was on full display Wednesday as Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes told the 15-member State Board of Education it isn't doing enough to prepare students for college.

Paredes came to the meeting armed with studies and statistics showing Texas lags behind other states in key areas including the percentage of young adults with postsecondary credentials and high schoolers' performance on college entrance exams. He delivered a similar message to legislators earlier this year.

Board members, whose duties include developing graduation requirements, returned the criticism, accusing Texas universities of not adequately training K-12 teachers.

"They do not come to us really prepared to be teachers," said board member Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican. 

Despite the tension, though, board members expressed appreciation for Paredes while he described many of their criticisms as "legitimate." Board chairwoman Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican, said Paredes' presence at the meeting was indicative of "increasing participation and collaboration" between higher and public education. 

"There's no doubt we need to do a lot better," Paredes told Hardy in response to her concerns. 

He used that phrase, or some form of it, repeatedly Wednesday as he described how far the state has to go to meet its goal of ensuring that 60 percent of Texas' 25 to 34 year olds hold some type of postsecondary degree by 2030. 

The percentage sits at about 38 percent currently, Paredes told the board, noting that compares to a national average of 43 percent. He also criticized the state's curriculum standards for language arts and reading, which the education board is currently reworking, describing them as vague and lacking emphasis on intellectual growth. 

Education Commissioner Mike Morath in many ways validated Paredes Wednesday, saying "we've got a lot of work to do," but also that SAT and ACT are clearly underestimating college readiness because only 36 percent of high school graduates didn't need remediation during their freshman year of college. He also said students of all races are scoring better on those college entrance exams even while the statewide average has been stagnant. 

"You hear a lot of sky-is-falling talk when it comes to public education," he said. "I think it's important to recognize our outcomes today are better than they have ever been."

The State board of Education, holding its second round of meetings this year, was set to discuss a variety of other topics Wednesday including the results of a recent large-scale online survey — organized by Bahorich — that indicates widespread unhappiness with required statewide exams known as STAAR.

The majority of the 27,186 respondents — organized into categories including educators, parents, students and business leaders — support getting rid of STAAR entirely and instead requiring students to take national tests such as the SAT, ACT or Iowa Test of Basic Skills. A majority of respondents also support decreasing the number of assessments and abolishing longtime state requirements that students pass tests before advancing to the next grade or graduating, the results show. 

There was no mechanism to control for the potential outsized influence of the vocal anti-testing movement in the results, Bahorich said in an interview Wednesday. But she described it as a legitimate "temperature gauge" for what stakeholders think about the state's assessment and accountability system. 

The survey is meant to inform a special panel called the Commission on Next Generation Assessment and Accountability charged with recommending further changes to the Legislature. The commission will hold its final meeting next week. 

State lawmakers have responded to criticism in recent years by unwinding many of the high-stakes measures they previously put in place. Paredes again cautioned against any further unwinding on Wednesday, saying exams should actually be more rigorous if the state expects to increase college readiness and postsecondary achievement.

"I worry about people's fear of rigor and competitiveness," he said in an interview after his presentation. 

Board member Thomas Ratliff described Paredes' contention as a "hard to swallow" minority view. 

"I almost fell out of my chair when you said Texas tests aren’t strong enough," the Mount Pleasant Republican told Paredes.

The ongoing backlash against high-stakes testing has been fueled this year by reports of widespread problems with the spring administration of the STAAR exam under a new testing vendor, New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service. 

But Morath on Wednesday said ETS had worked hard to resolve those issues and that he has a "high level of confidence" they won't resurface. 

"Not to say we're out of the woods," he added.  

Disclosure: Educational Testing Service and Raymund Paredes have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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