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EduLege Tracker 6-18-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 36
June 18, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

The problems just keep coming…

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath now acknowledges that the number of students who were affected by computer glitches during the administration of the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness tests this spring is much higher than previously reported—more than 100,000 students across the state.

Some students were kicked out of their online STAAR tests for up to three hours because of server issues. Others had to log in multiple times because of problems with the system.

The latest reports are emerging even as local school administrators are becoming increasingly concerned about the state’s whole testing program. For example, Garland reported that its tests were delivered to the wrong district—in Houston.  And numerous districts are reporting that they had a suspiciously high number of students who scored zeros on the high school essay portions of the tests.

Commissioner Morath briefed the State Board of Education last week on this year's testing mishaps, saying they were a far cry from the widespread meltdown that happened in 2016 when there were also computer glitches, security concerns, delivery problems and grading issues. Still, this year has been far from flawless.

Thousands of students were kicked offline while trying to take their STAAR tests in April and May. Now their STAAR scores won't necessarily be factored into the state's academic ratings, which are to be released later this summer.

Commissioner Morath reiterated that the scores of those affected by this year's mishaps will be tossed—if they drag down the rating of a school or district. He said the state is working with its vendor—Educational Testing Services—to determine what went wrong.

ETS says that it had issues in 2016 because its systems and processes weren't designed appropriately for Texas. The company was ordered by the commissioner to spend $15 million for improvements after 2016, which resulted in a nearly flawless testing season in 2017.

To date, Commissioner Morath has fined ETS another $100,000 in damages for the computer problems experienced earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the state's testing contract has been opened for new bids. As previously scheduled, ETS’ contract to administer the STAAR—currently worth about $327 million—runs through August 2019.

Hurricane waivers…

Now that we’re back in the early weeks of hurricane season, Commissioner Morath has released the criteria that he will apply to decide how to waive state ratings for schools that were affected by Hurricane Harvey last August and September.

Schools impacted by Harvey that are set to receive failing state ratings this year—based largely on the STAAR tests—will instead get a waiver, or a "not rated" label, if they meet the commissioner’s criteria.  

But many school administrators say that the commissioner is not going far enough.

They have repeatedly asked him to waive state ratings for all schools in the disaster area, instead of just the percentage that meet his criteria. They maintain that the mental health and academic impacts of the storm apply to all students and teachers in the region.

According to the commissioner’s rules, schools must meet at least one of the following criteria to be considered for an accountability waiver:

  • The school reported 10 percent or more of its enrolled students were displaced or homeless due to Harvey

  • The school reported 10 percent or more of its teachers were homeless due to the hurricane

  • The school was closed for 10 or more class days after Harvey struck

  • The school had to hold classes in a different location or share a campus, at least through winter break, due to hurricane-related damages


If all schools in a district qualify for a waiver, the entire district will also receive a waiver from state ratings this year. Districts will also receive waivers if 10 percent or more of their student body is enrolled in a school that received a waiver. 

A 2015 state law requires the state to sanction school districts that have failing schools for more than four years, by taking over the school district or by forcibly shutting down the low-performing schools. School districts with waivers for their chronically failing campuses will also receive a break from state sanctions this year, Commissioner Morath says.

Houston has 10 schools that are chronically low-performing in state ratings and is depending on a Hurricane Harvey waiver to avoid state sanctions next year.

But according to data-crunching by the Houston Chronicle, four of those 10 school likely will not qualify for the hurricane waiver, and the state sanctions will still apply.

Schools and districts that don't automatically receive a waiver under Commissioner Morath's criteria can appeal.

Commissioner Morath said more schools and districts will be eligible for waivers from state ratings than from previous storms. After Hurricane Ike, schools could only receive waivers if they were closed for 10 or more days. 

An unhyphenated name change…

The State Board of Education—bowing to the demands of scholars and activists—has unanimously approved a name change for a high school social studies elective course that focuses on the culture and history of Mexican-Americans.

Instead of “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent,” as originally proposed by the State Board, the high school social studies elective course will now simply be called “Ethnic Studies: Mexican American Studies.”

At a protest prior to the meeting of the State Board last week, Mexican-American activists and scholars argued that the course title—as originally proposed in April—represented an assault on their ethnic identity.

“I can tell you that April meeting was one of the hardest meetings I’ve had to attend,” said State board member Ruben Cortez, Jr., a Democrat from Brownsville.

State board member David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican, proposed the course title in April, saying that he found "hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”  

At the protest, Mr. Cortez called Mr. Bradley “the most mean-spirited” member of the board. Mr. Bradley responded to Mr. Cortez’ criticism by saying that he has become “impatient with a board member, who after four years, is generally unprepared to debate issues and has yet to master even basic parliamentary skills.”

Amidst the partisan bickering over what to call the course, board member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, says Texas has added an important new course to its high school curriculum.

“I hope we don’t lose sight over the furor of the name that we have passed a very strong course in Mexican-American studies,” Mr. Rowley said.

Off limits…

Houston school trustees have narrowly rejected the district’s proposed $2 billion budget for 2018-2019.

In a surprising split, board members voted 5-4 to reject the budget proposal after several trustees expressed concern about using $19 million from the district’s Fund Balance to cover a shortfall.  

The Houston school district budget has been subject to intense scrutiny since January, when administrators first forecasted a deficit of about $200 million.  Administrators revised their projections after receiving a more-optimistic revenue outlook in recent months, cutting the projected deficit in half. They proposed slashing about $83 million in spending—which would result in hundreds of employee layoffs—and using $19 million from Fund Balance to cover the remaining shortfall.

Several trustees say the district's needs to stop using its cash reserves to balance its operating budget. Last year, trustees voted 8-1 to take $106 million from the district’s Fund Balance to cover its deficit.

Houston administrators say they’ll go back to the drawing board and find new ways to cut costs—namely personnel—and will present trustees with a proposed budget that doesn’t rely upon dipping further into the district’s Fund Balance.

Begrudgingly…

The city of Dallas will turn over its newly-inherited school crossing guard program—that it didn’t want to operate to begin with—to a private security firm.

The Dallas City Council has approved a three-year, $15.5 million contract for All City Management Services Inc., which had the winning competitive bid, to take over the crossing-guard program. 

State law requires cities with more than 850,000 residents to handle school crossing guard programs.

Dallas County voters decided last November to dissolve the Dallas County Schools support agency, which provided student transportation and crossing guards to area school districts. DCS faced corruption allegations relating to its stop-arm camera program. Its former superintendent Rick Sorrells recently pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting $3 million in bribes and kickbacks from DSC’s bus camera vendor, Force Multiplier Solutions.

All City Management Services, based in California, is the nation's largest crossing guard provider. It will pay the 400 crossing guards that it expects to hire in Dallas at least $10.95 an hour.

City officials hope to receive funding assistance from a proposed county fee on vehicle registrations to help pay for the crossing guards. But that decision, on a $1.50 per-vehicle assessment, will be decided by Dallas voters in November.

Retrial…

A federal judge has ruled that there was “absolutely negligence” when prosecutors withheld evidence from defense lawyers who are representing four El Paso school administrators who were accused of fraudulently inflating the district’s academic performance.

Judge David Briones handed down that ruling following a four-hour hearing and ordered a retrial of the four defendants before the end of the year.

Former El Paso associate superintendent James Anderson, former high school principal John Tanner, and former assistant principals Nancy Love and Mark Tegmeyer remain charged in connection with the scheme.

The four are charged with exempting an untold number of struggling El Paso students from required state tests, thus artificially boosting the district’s academic ratings, attendance and graduation rates, all to meet federal accountability standards.

Coming up…

Governor Abbott’s proposal to arm more Texas teachers in the wake of the May shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead continues to receive pushback from classroom teachers, school administrators and education associations.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says that school safety—and returning God to the classroom—will be his top legislative priority in 2019.

And a new Texas polls reveals where Texans believe the Texas Legislature should place its spending priorities.

Those stories—and more—in the Thursday, June 21, edition of EduLege.


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.