Yesterday I had the opportunity to review the Bill Analysis of an amended bill (C.S.H.B. 5) that is soon to be debated on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. If passed, this bill will enact MAJOR changes to the education system in Texas, with a particular focus on accountability and testing. It will also greatly impact graduation plans, among other things.
Let me say right here at the outset that I’m one of those people derisively referred to as “anti-testing” by folks who never saw a standardized test they didn’t want to purchase from Pearson so they could pull kids out of their instructional time to administer it. Never mind the fact that I’ve assigned hundreds of quizzes and tests to assess student learning over the years. Whatever. Advocacy for reasonable restrictions on a thing is always painted as an absolute ban on said thing by rhetoricians on the proliferation side. Luckily, the vast majority of Texans are just as “anti-testing” as I am.
This bill represents a new direction in educational accountability, a direction we desperately need to take in the Lone Test State. The system described in C.S.H.B. 5 is different than our current system of educational accountability in several important ways, including: it replaces rigidity with choice and flexibility; it replaces the sorting and ranking of kids and schools with the describing and differentiating of them; it replaces a negative punishment-centered system with a positive reinforcement-centered system, obsessing not over some narrow, mean-spirited menu of deficiencies but focusing on the beautiful array of proficiencies that our diverse students and schools bring to the table; and it replaces a top-down, distant command-and-control scenario with a locus of control much nearer to the student and the teacher. It honors the integrity of learner and teacher, rather than insulting them by dictating everything from Austin, as if they don’t know what’s good for them. That’s called local control, and you’d think with all the big talk about how conservative our leaders are around here, local control would be the default setting in our government. Wrong. If your locality wants to implement a vocational-focused career-ready curriculum, you can expect the nanny-staters in Austin to attempt to revoke your autonomy, because local voters and the trustees they elect clearly don’t know what’s best for them. Sure you have freedom, so long as you do what they want you to do. (Sorry. Soapbox.)
Anyway, this system moves us toward a more nuanced and accurate portrait of how our schools are doing. That is, it moves us closer to the truth. If the old accountability system was a club, this system is a scalpel. Plus, it moves us away from teacher-shaming toward a diagnosis-and-treatment approach for our struggling schools.
I would like to use my commentary today to highlight 23 things in the bill that I like, and one thing that I don’t like.
1. The bill replaces the “minimum,” “recommended,” and “distinguished” graduation plans with a single “foundation plan” for students. This is a clear move away from the meanness of our ranking and sorting fetish.
2. It expands the authority of local school boards to offer certain locally-developed college prep classes. Anytime the locus of control is moved closer to the student and his or her parents, it’s a good thing.
3. It allows students to gain a high school fine arts credit through participation in a non-school activity (such as a community theater, perhaps). Choice and flexibility.
4. It allows students to earn their required foreign language credit by taking a computer coding language. Even though I was a Spanish teacher, I love this idea. Choice and flexibility.
5. It allows a Special Education student to substitute an academic or career and technology course for the foreign language requirement. Choice and flexibility. Special needs students especially need the ability to customize their educational experience according to their individual strengths and interests.
6. It allows students to graduate with a “distinguished level of achievement” denoted on their diplomas and transcripts. This seems similar to the cum laude honors given out at college graduations, as opposed to the “distinguished diploma” that cheapened the recommended diploma and particularly the minimum diploma under the old system. Under this system, we are giving stellar students a pat on the back without simultaneously back-handing all the other, less stellar kids. (Essentially, Texas’s former system had an abiding meanness problem. This system gets away from rampant unnecessary swipes at students and teachers.)
7. It allows students to graduate with “endorsements” denoted on diplomas and transcripts. These endorsements can be in STEM, business and industry, public services, arts and humanities, and multidisciplinary studies. I have a particular weakness for letting people–including students–be who they are. This is one of my favorite aspects. How hard is it, and how much does it cost, to let each kid pick his interest area and work toward an endorsement in that field? I see this as supremely RELEVANT, and relevance is always good in education. Endorsements are kind of like college majors, and I think many of us in the trenches of public education have wondered for a long time why high school students couldn’t pick an interest area and pursue it explicitly during their high school years. Endorsements move us away from ranking according to how well the pegs fit into standardized holes and toward the simultaneous recognition of students who may fit extremely well into a variety of hole shapes. (You know, like that plastic child’s toy with the star-shaped and crescent-shaped slots in it. Multiple kinds of competencies isn’t synonymous with low standards. My dad is a million times more competent than me with wood and tools even though I can probably beat him on a grammar test. But I’m definitely not smarter than that man.) This moves away us from our entrenched win-lose mindset and toward a more humane and effective win-win mindset.
8. It allows for “performance acknowledgements” to be denoted on diplomas and transcripts. Between “distinguished levels of achievement,” “endorsements,” and “performance acknowledgements,” students have multiple avenues they can take to strive for a pat on the back. Everyone likes acknowledgement and praise. Many of today’s most disengaged students have gotten that way because they’ve given up on earning esteem in the school system because the avenues to esteem for students have been narrowed to just one–do well on the test. Barring that one skillset, you get no love. This begins to fix that.
9. This system reduces the number of mandatory high stakes tests to just five: English II writing, English II reading, Algebra I, US History, and Biology. Better still, the high stakes tests are spread out across the first three years of high school. This protects class time, and it protects our teachers from being treated over and over again during the school year like Pearson’s pack mules, lugging those accursed plastic tubs full of testing materials up and down the halls and staring blankly at test-takers for four hours after reciting Pearson’s soulless test administrator scripted liturgy.
10. It makes the decision of whether or not to count a student’s end-of-course test results in their course averages a local district decision. Again, when the locus of control is closer to the people affected by the decision, the less resentment the decision will engender, and the more appropriate for the local context the final decision is likely to be.
11. This system will make two tests optional for kids who want to take them: English III and Algebra II. The idea is to check students’ college readiness. I am assuming that all college-bound students will be encouraged to take these tests, but maybe not (see number 15 below). This is positive, once more, because it distributes power and responsibility and education-ownership to the students.
12. I need to read the actual bill to get clarification on this one, but the bill summary says the Algebra II test will be administered with the “aid of technology.” I take that to mean that calculators will be allowed/required, though I had a second thought and decided it might mean that the test must be given online. Either way, I’m in agreement. Graphing calculators have amazing real-world-relevant capabilities and our students need to learn to use them. Online testing is–aside from the inevitable glitches and downtime–very convenient from a “I’m sick of getting all these boxes and packages from Pearson and sorting and storing junk from Pearson and boxing stuff up and mailing it Pearson” standpoint. Plus, with an online test, results come back incredibly quickly.
13. Students won’t be mandatorily required to retake a test if they don’t succeed on it. Again, I like the onus of this decision being on the student rather than dictated by distant rulers.
14. Unlike under the STAAR legislation–which, let’s be honest, was really remarkably bad–students who pass the test will not be permitted endless retakes for any reason. Someone who made that decision had never dealt with student (and parent) competition for the top spot in the class. If allowed to remain, there is little doubt that many, many students would be taking and retaking the test just to try and get over whatever line might exist to get into the college of their dreams. It’s practical, operational stuff like this that should help our legislators to remember to at least have actual practitioners in the room when the business lobby is trying to make our state’s educational decisions.
15. It allows students to substitute their successful scores on tests like the ACT, SAT, PSAT, and ACT-Plan for their end-of-course test requirements. Again, this is flexibility and choice. It also addresses the concerns of those of us who imagine Pearson’s seven-headed lobbying monster slinking up and down the Capitol hallwyas pushing for more tests, more tests, more tests even long after the amount and centrality of testing grows detrimental to children. (That already happened, by the way.)
16. The bill requires that school ratings be constructed from a variety of indicators, including a minimum of three that are not test-score related, dropout-rate related, and graduation-rate related. The “school reformers” will gasp here. Their orthodoxy holds that there exists only a narrow list of objective measures of school quality. They are, of course, incorrect on that count. There are a million different data points we could choose to use to compare schools and their outcomes. One of the easiest points of criticism I’m able to level against the whole school reform movement is how they say “we measure what we treasure” which of course also means “what we don’t test, we detest.” Mary Ann Whiteker at the latest Save Texas Schools march encapsulated this concern very elegantly by listing the things she treasures that STAAR doesn’t measure. That sappy throwaway line essentially means our Spanish teachers are worthless, doesn’t it? (Sorry, dear wife. The state doesn’t treasure you, apparently. But I do.) We don’t measure CTE effectiveness or about a million other things that students and parents and teachers value wholeheartedly. The best student welder in the state of Texas gets nothing for his troubles except local praise, because Texas leaders only treasure math, science, English Language Arts, and social studies? Bah. I treasure a whole lot more than those, and so do parents.
17. This bill requires TEA to publicly post school ratings by August 8. Having the ratings available to the public quickly–and all of them hopefully found in a single, central, easy-to-access location–will do much to advance a more coherent, easy-to-understand school accountability system. The system we are currently under has never been particularly streamlined or user-friendly.
18. Local communities (boards, superintendents, and committees including non-school personnel, if I read it right) will grade campuses on parent engagement, student engagement, and compliance, using something like a rubric from the TEA. The grades for these things will be on an A,B,C,F scale–just like the new school ratings. I like the local input into a school’s accountability rating, and the similarities of the easy-to-understand systems.
19. I also like the fact that under this bill our school academic ratings and school financial ratings will be reported in the same way, and at the same time. Previously, parents (and some of the less intelligent superintendents, like yours truly) had a hard time sorting out the accountability rating and the SchoolFIRST rating and the federal accountability rating. This doesn’t help with the federal thing, but it at least helps align the financial and state academic ratings. Like many grown-up boys, I like unification of disparate purposes into convenient packages. I think every boy at some point had a Swiss Army knife knock-off and loved it. I had one with a fork and spoon once. I never got caught out in the woods and had to survive with only my wits and my awesome fork-spoon-knife–I mostly used it to eat microwave raviolis, and that was only for like the first two days after I got it. (After that it lived in my sock drawer.) But still; it was comforting knowing I had it. Just the idea that one tool can do so many things–like a Leatherman–does something for the male brain. (Maybe the female brain too; I don’t profess to know anything about that topic.) I don’t know, there’s something about the way we’re wired that we want to consolidate our tools when we can. That’s why the iPhone was such a hit. We didn’t have to carry an iPod and a phone anymore, which was a giant hassle–it was an all-in-one device. It even had a calculator and a calendar and Angry Birds. That’s how a school accountability system should be. It should be a multilane highway instead of several parallel dirt roads.
20. Under this bill–at least by appearances, we’ll see post-implementation if they ruin this–distinction designations appear to be reported with no less enthusiasm than school ratings. Under the old system, it always felt like sneering words like “Academically Acceptable” got trumpeted from the mountaintops while the “Gold Star Acknowledgements” or whatever they were called were kind of whispered. It was up to the schools to try and make a big deal of their distinctions, which came out (if I remember right) at a different time than the actual front-page-worthy ratings. Under this bill, distinctions will be required to be released simultaneously with the ratings. Hopefully newspapers will report them with equal enthusiasm as the spankings public school teachers receive.
21. Schools will get distinction designations for raising overall scores, for closing achievement gaps between subpopulations, and for boosting scores in the various specific tested subject areas. This was one of the (few) features of the new STAAR accountability system that I was looking forward to. I like how it keeps pressure for improvement in place on us, but it does so by honoring rather than shaming. I’ve always wished our legislators would recognize that school people have never complained a whit about programs like the US Dept. of Ed’s “Blue Ribbon Schools” program, even though it honored select schools and left out the vast majority. See, there’s a difference between publishing the A honor roll–nobody minds an aspirational system–and publishing the F honor roll. We’ve been eagerly doing the latter with schools, and I’ve always wanted to say, “We would never do this to kids!” Because it wouldn’t work to motivate them. It would only make them resent and hate the system. Which is exactly what our past accountability system has done for educators. No one likes statutory meanness and rigid unfair treatment. These obtuse business dudes took over and eagerly shamed struggling schools, teachers, and students, thinking that would make the educators try harder? Or maybe their actual goal was simply the devaluing and desolation of public education? Anyway, this bill appears to move toward a more aspirational, less accusatory and blame-centered system. And that’s good, because we aren’t all going to be above average, and being below average doesn’t mean you’re bad if all ships are rising. Half the schools are always going to be in the bottom half. That isn’t called an emergency. It’s called math.
22. This bill requires the TEA website to host all the school ratings. Technically I guess that is already the case, but the AEIS reporting system is very cumbersome and the reports are essentially impossible for the average Joe to read and comprehend. My hope is that the spirit of this bill will be for all school ratings to be found at a simple, straightforward, well-publicized, easily accessible site. I hope it isn’t buried on the TEA website, but that the TEA is permitted to build a new website with an easy-to-remember URL that parents, educators, and journalists can remember, that becomes the hub of school quality information. TEA and our legislators might check out the schools explorer app over at the Texas Tribune and take notes. Fewer lines of data and more colorful graphs and charts would be good. There could be a link to the data for people who want to swim in numbers. Most people don’t.
23. The Top 10% automatic admission rule into state colleges will be reserved for students graduating with the distinguished distinction. That’s a good idea.
1. This bill does nothing to reduce the 17 high-stakes tests that elementary students must take in Texas, even though the federal government only requires something like eight high-stakes tests. The Parker County Coalition will be publishing a letter in the next few days that clearly lays out an elementary testing regime that maintains accountability while protecting class time and aligning the state system with federal requirements. It’s sensible, and it doesn’t “water down” accountability. I love how any reduction in the number of times we weigh the cows is postulated by the guys who sell the scales as a “watering down” of our monitoring efforts. What a load. If left to their devices, they would have us test every day. Every single day. And not because that’s what’s good for kids. They know and deeply care about what’s good for business. They have spent a decade shutting up teachers who challenge the “pull-them-out-of-class-and-test-them-again” philosophy by denouncing those teachers as kid-haters, by questioning their personal integrity and their professionalism when they challenge the need for all these tests. I think teachers are finished allowing test-pushers to bully them into letting data-system salesmen, industry advocates, business lobbyists, and test pushers abuse education for their own ulterior motives.
Anyway, C.S.H.B. 5 is a very positive development, in my opinion. I’m sure there will be interested parties who try very hard to find ways to protect Pearson’s giant lobbying investment in the past monstrosities that have sailed through our statehouse. I’m hopeful that the organizations and the parents and students and teachers who care about a quality, locally-controlled education will call their Representatives and let them know that this is a good bill, and that it doesn’t need to be saddled with test-and-data-company-benefitting amendments on the floor of the House. Let’s get Texas back to the business of educating children, and out of the business of guaranteeing annually-rising testing profits.
Sorry for any typos. Banged this out between 7-10pm last night and 5-6:30pm this morning. (And now I have to hustle to get to work on time! No time to proofread.)