A battle is brewing between the Texas Education Agency and school districts over who should shoulder the costs of federally mandated ACT and SAT exams for certain high school students.
At the center of the funding battle is a group of 109,000 students who completed high-level state math and reading tests before entering high school. Federal education law now requires those students to take another assessment while they are in high school to measure their achievement.
In a proposed change to its administrative rules, the TEA said it would use the ACT and SAT — two standardized tests administered for college admissions — to test those students in high school, and that school districts and charter schools should pay for them.
School districts disagree, and they fired back against the TEA during a public comment period for the proposed amendment.
“It was unfathomable that [the TEA] wouldn’t agree to pay for these tests,” said Casey McCreary, the associate executive director of education policy at the Texas Association of School Administrators, one of the organizations that is opposed to the proposal.
The proposal applies to students who, prior to entering high school, took the Algebra I or the English I and English II end-of-course assessments, which are part of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, program. Administering the ACT or the SAT to those students would cost districts across the state a total of $5.45 million each year, according to TEA estimates, assuming the tests each cost $50. Prompting the change is the Every Student Succeeds Act, or the ESSA, the federal act that replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind Act and that aims to give states more freedom in setting goals for school districts.
During the public comment period for the proposed amendment, McCreary submitted a memo to the Texas Education Agency recommending that the agency add the $5.45 million cost for the first year of tests to its list of funding requests to the Legislature.
A spokesperson for the TEA did not immediately answer questions about why the agency thinks local school districts should pay for the tests. However, the agency said on the website outlining the proposed amendment that it is exempt from a rule in the Texas Government Code that says a state agency cannot impose a cost on a local government because the proposed amendment is necessary to comply with federal law.
HD Chambers, the president of the Texas School Alliance and the superintendent of Alief Independent School District, wrote in a separate memo to the TEA that the money should come from a $78.5 million fund that the Texas Legislature has appropriated each year for the student testing system.
“I can’t help but believe that the state has the capacity to fund $5.45 million in exams,” Chambers told The Texas Tribune. He said the state already spends large sums of money on the STAAR tests, which he said are “not nearly as necessary as the ACT or the SAT.”
Currently, the state pays for STAAR end-of-course assessments in math, English, science and history, which the state's 1.5 million high school students must complete to earn a high school diploma, according to the TEA. Most students complete the STAAR assessments during high school, not before. About 214,000 public school graduates took the ACT, SAT or both in 2015, the latest year of data available on the TEA's website.
Chambers said he appreciates that the state wants to use the ACT and the SAT to fulfill the mandatory federal testing requirement, adding that he has previously worked with Mike Morath, the state commissioner of education, to boost the use of the ACT and the SAT in state assessment methods.
But he said it is “unreasonable” to force districts to pay for the tests since some districts cannot afford them.
McCreary agreed with Chambers, saying it would be “detrimental” to students if districts are asked to divert money away from areas that are “huge for students” like school safety, special education and Hurricane Harvey recovery.
Dax Gonzalez, the governmental relations communications manager of the Texas Association of School Boards, called the plan “yet another unfunded mandate” and said “it starts getting pretty burdensome when you take the cumulative effect and when you start redirecting all those resources to these little mandates.”
The conflict over who will pay for the tests comes as the TEA plans to decrease state funding to public education and use local taxes to fill the gap. This has prompted angry reactions from educators who want the state to invest more in public education.
The spokesperson for the TEA said the agency received nearly 200 public comments, which are currently under review. The agency will post its responses to the comments after the review process ends, and the amendment will still need to go to the commissioner for final review.
The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.