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EduLege Tracker 4-12-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 22
April 12, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

It’s baacccck!!!

As the battery of standardized state tests resumed this week for Texas students, the stakes are higher than ever, and the controversies over the quality and potential abuse of the exams are intensifying.

This year, under legislation passed by the Texas Legislature in 2015, the state not only could force the closure of campuses that receive low academic test results for multiple years—it could also take over the management of an entire school district, based upon the poor performance of just one school.

And for a thousand or more campuses that were battered by Hurricane Harvey last year, storm-weary classroom teachers and students must now worry about the consequences they face if the lack of time for adequate preparation results in poor performance this spring on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness tests.  

Unfortunately, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will not fully confirm that Harvey-affected districts and campuses will receive any exemption from the 2018 accountability sanctions, as occurred a decade ago after Hurricane Ike.

The state testing regime also faces a legal challenge from parents who allege that the state has not complied with the state law that required that TEA reduce that the time that it takes to complete the STAAR tests in the 3rd through 8th grades.

Their lawsuit, filed in 2016, gained new momentum just recently with a favorable ruling by a state court of appeals, which said the challenge appeared to have merit and should proceed to trial.

And finally, this year’s administration of the STAAR will largely be the basis for assigning all Texas school districts their A-F letter grades beginning in August.

School officials say the A-F grading system is overly simplistic and could stereotype campuses in low-income neighborhoods.

Oops! Again…

Some students who took the online version of the STAAR tests this week saw the computer program crash midway through their exam.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said there was a "very minor" glitch after a testing server system failed for about 20 minutes.

“Some students were kicked off and logged out by the system, but all of their work was still there when things got back up and running,” Ms. Culbertson said. “To our knowledge, no student data or information was lost.”

The temporary shutdown occurred while nearly 104,000 high school students around the state were taking the English I End-of-Course test.  

The glitch made some educators worry that this year would be a repeat of the 2016 debacle, when statewide computer issues affected more than 14,000 tests, and students were locked out of STAAR software or had their answers erased. That testing meltdown was so serious, Commissioner Morath ended up scraping the STAAR results for all 5th and 8th grade students.

The state’s STAAR administrator, Educational Testing Service, also experienced test delivery problems, scoring problems and even security breaches two years ago. As a result, Commissioner Morath imposed a hefty fine against the company, and ordered ETS to improve its technology and testing procedures to prevent future problems.

The Nation’s Report Card…

Texas students dropped in reading, and slipped closer to the national averages in math last year, according to the latest results in the tests that are commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Texas 4th grade students ranked 45th, and 8th-graders placed 41st in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state’s lowest finish in the exam’s 25-year history. Texas students still performed above national averages on the math test—4th-graders placed 18th, and 8th-graders placed 24th—although both grades saw their standings drop in 2017.

The poor showing has Texas education leaders promising to make some changes.

Commissioner Morath promised to improve “foundational reading and math skills,” by focusing on districts that need additional support and by providing math and reading teachers with more opportunities for professional development.

The NAEP test, administered to a sampling of 4th- and 8th-grade students across the country every two years, is considered one of the leading indicators of academic achievement in elementary and middle schools. The results are used to compare performance among states and 27 of the nation’s largest school districts.

Texas students previously performed better on math tests than reading assessments. However, the 2017 results in reading mark a sharp decline after years of hewing closer to national averages in both subjects. In reading, Texas 4th-graders fell six spots, while 8th Grade students slipped by three positions.  In math, 4th-graders dropped eight spots and 8th-graders slipped two.

The NAEP tests are administered to select students that are deemed representative of states and large school districts. Approximately 7,500 Texas 4th- and 8th-Grade students completed the exam last year.

Seventy-five bucks doesn’t buy what it used to buy…

Texas teachers and other school district employees are having a harder time paying for health insurance as premiums rise and the state’s meager contribution of $75-a-month has remained unchanged for more than 15 years.

Meanwhile, employees’ share of the premiums for TRS Care, the health insurance program run by the Teacher Retirement System, has more than doubled since the program first started in 2001. Many Texas school districts have raised their contribution from the statutory minimum of $150 a month, but with financial constraints from an outdated state school funding system, cash-strapped districts have had no choice but to pass on much of the premium increases to teachers.

“When the state’s contribution doesn’t go up, and school districts are hammered with their own budgetary issues, it only leaves the teacher, bus driver or cafeteria worker to make up the rest,” said Clay Robison with the Texas State Teachers Association.

About 442,000 Texas public school employees, and their dependents, are enrolled in the TRS health care program. Monthly premiums, after the minimum state and employer contributions are deducted, cost teachers between $126 and $489 for individual plans, and up to $2,000 for family plans. Deductibles, before health benefits are paid, can be as high as $5,000, for some of the plans.

Ann Fickel with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association says TRS should offer better coverage, including more reasonable deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums and premiums. She said teachers shouldn’t have to choose high-deductible plans with the worst coverage because that’s all they can afford.

Ultimately, she would like to see the state offer a high-quality, no-cost, employee-only plan for teachers, just as it does for state government employees, including those who work for the Texas Education Agency.

But faced with a tight state budget, as well as pressing financial issues such as Hurricane Harvey recovery, school funding problems and ensuring that the retired teacher health insurance program stays solvent, the Texas Legislature will be hard-pressed to boost the state’s share of teacher health insurance premiums.

AKA Mexican-American Studies…

The State Board of Education has given preliminary approval to creating a high school curriculum for a Mexican-American studies course—but only after changing the name of the course to "ethnic studies," which conservatives argued is less alienating for non-Hispanic groups.

The issue has been hotly debated for years in a state that was once part of Mexico and where a majority of the public school students are now of Hispanic heritage. The vote was a major victory for supporters of teaching the contributions of Mexican-Americans throughout Texas history, but the name change also reflects how contentious the issue remains.

The Republican-controlled State Board voted to begin developing a statewide curriculum for a course that will be known as "Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent."  

Four years earlier, the board refused to approve a full, statewide Mexican-American course. Texas school districts were instead allowed to create their own course, and many did.

Emotions ran high before the board’s preliminary vote.

Supporters of teaching Mexican-American studies staged a rally outside the State Board meeting, and then dozens of teachers, students, parents, academic experts, and activists—some wearing traditional Aztec dress, others as young as 12—lined up to testify for expanding the course in Texas.

When a group of 7th-grade students said they were already taking a Mexican-American studies course, board member Pat Hardy, a Republican from Fort Worth, said that state law required them to be learning Texas history. That prompted a heated exchange with an elder activist, who said it was "terrifying" for Ms. Harvey to suggest that students were engaging in illegal learning.

Board member Hardy also argued that much of what was being taught in existing high school Mexican-American studies courses is already covered elsewhere in Texas curriculums.

But supporters of Mexican-American studies say the existing history curriculums don't offer enough.

The State Board is scheduled to take a final vote on the new “ethnic studies” course on Friday, and then the debate will turn to what should be included in the curriculum.

Park it some place else…

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says Oklahoma teachers who have walked out of their classrooms to protest school funding cuts should “keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place.”

“I think about the kids,” Secretary DeVos said.

Tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers converged on the state capitol last week, demanding more money for the state’s schools, which have endured some of the steepest spending cuts in the nation.

Educators are pressing Oklahoma legislators to invest more in classrooms and say that their walkout is on behalf of students who are not receiving the resources they need to learn.

Students in many Oklahoma districts—including the state’s two largest—were out of the classroom last week, and many schools were expected to remain closed this week as teachers continue their fight. Churches, community organizations and even the Oklahoma City Zoo have stepped up to provide child care and to make sure students who rely on schools for meals were fed.

Adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma spends nearly 30 percent less on schools than it did a decade ago. School buildings are crumbling in many parts of the state; textbooks are outdated and tattered and about 20 percent of the districts have moved to four-day school weeks. Oklahoma teacher salaries ranked 49th in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the National Education Association.

The Oklahoma Legislature recently hiked teacher salaries by an average of $6,100; boosted the pay for school support staff by $1,250; and invested an additional $50 million in schools. But teachers say the extra money is not enough to make up for years of funding cuts.

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.