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Educators take issue with Senate plan for school assessment

Educators and advocates found it hard to concur on the Senate's version of House Bill 22, either finding it too restrictive and tied to standardized tests or not quite strict enough.

State Sens. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood (center), and Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville (right), during a Senate Education Committee meeting March 21, 2017. 

Educators on Thursday turned up to a Senate committee hearing on a bill that would change how the state assesses schools and districts with a message for legislators.

"We were for the House-passed version," said Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel for the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, presented a substitute version of House Bill 22, which would tweak the state's proposed system for grading schools and districts on an A-F scale. Taylor changed many provisions in the House's bill to bring it closer to Senate Bill 2051, which passed out of his committee last week.

"Are we trying to make everybody unhappy, or is that kind of what an accountability system does?" asked Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, correctly predicting feedback from discontent advocates on the bill during the public hearing.

Alief Independent School District Superintendent HD Chambers helped the House develop HB 22 to make the A-F grading system more palatable to other superintendents, many of whom do not want any grades for schools or districts.

"What the state of Texas has asked of an accountability system for the last 20 to 25 years is a bit unfair" since it has been designed to speak to parents, policymakers and teachers at the same time, Chambers said. Taylor's version of the bill does not speak to teachers, he said, because it relies too much on standardized tests.

In the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers agreed to switch from a pass/fail system to a graded system of assessing schools and districts, in part because they thought A-F grades would be easier for parents to understand. But critics, many of them superintendents and teachers, argued the current system is too dependent on standardized tests and does not properly reflect how students are being taught in the classroom.

This session, legislators are trying to fix what they started in 2015, in part by grading districts on three overall categories — student achievement, student progress and school climate — instead of five, and by allowing more flexibility on how to rate schools on factors beyond tests.

Educators prefer the House's version of HB 22 because it would not let the state use standardized tests as the main indicator for deciding how to grade schools or districts. It proposes alternative indicators, including assessments chosen by the district, for determining whether a school or district is doing a good job.

Taylor's version strips many of those provisions out — though it would allow Education Commissioner Mike Morath leeway to include them if he wants. It also would give schools and districts one summative grade as well as a separate grade for each category, unlike the House version. And it would keep the implementation of the system in 2018, instead of delaying it to 2019, as the House version does.

Taylor's version was an unwelcome change for some educators, who would prefer no graded system for schools at all.

"Although it seeks to simplify and include more non-test-based indicators in the accountability system, it still requires summative accountability ratings and does not delay the implementation of the A-F system," said Holly Eaton, director of advocacy at the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

Kate Kuhlmann, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, asked senators to bring back the language from the House version that described what each category meant, so parents could understand how their schools were being graded.

A couple of representatives of groups advocating for stricter accountability told Taylor they preferred the Senate version over the House version but were in support of what the Legislature voted out in 2015.

Molly Weiner, policy director for the Texas Aspires Foundation, said she appreciated that the Senate version removed the restriction on how much standardized test scores could factor into accountability. She argued it still required the state to grade schools on too many measures to be useful.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Wednesday that he would barter part of HB 22 to get the House to pass one of his priorities: education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling expenses for kids with disabilities. He promised to keep the provision in the House's version of HB 22 that delayed the implementation of this new grading system until 2019. Taylor's version as currently written would deploy the new system in 2018, as originally planned.

House members are unlikely to take Patrick up on that offer since they have made it clear they do not want any voucher-like programs.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas House passed a bill that would overhaul the controversial A-F system for grading schools, now set for implementation next school year.
  • During a House Public Education Committee hearing, education experts and activists testified on legislation related to the state's A-F accountability system for public schools and districts.

Disclosure: The Texas Classroom Teachers Association and the Association of Texas Professional Educators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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