A Post Session Assessment of Texas Education Policy Changes Considered, Adopted and Rejected in 2013

Albert Cortez , Ph.D.

Following the close of the 2013
Texas legislative session in May, IDRA assessed policies adopted, rejected or never given the chance to see the light of day. In contrast to the previous session in 2011 when lawmakers labored to craft a budget and attempt to address major education issues while facing an expected multi-billion dollar shortfall, the 2013 session was more of a struggle to convince policymakers to increase investments in the critical areas of education, healthcare, and water and state infrastructure. As in most sessions, state policy leaders received mixed ratings, achieving relatively high marks in a few areas, mediocre ratings in many, and failing marks on several important issues.

Fair Funding

The Texas legislature’s recent efforts to fund public schools received better marks than did the 2011 session with its record-setting funding cuts. Of the $5.4 billion total increase in state aid this session, $3.8 billion was allocated via formulae that adjusts school districts’ funding on the basis of their ability to raise local revenue to cover local educational costs (referred to as local property wealth per student). This was accomplished by increasing the basic allotment from $4,765 per weighted student to $4,950 for 2013-14 and $5,040 for 2014-15. Yet, schools are still being funded at close to 2006 school year levels, despite increased operational costs.

The state legislature partially restored funding for the Successful School Schools Initiative (SSI), which received a total of $50 million, and for early childhood programs, which were provided $33 million for the next biennium. The allocations for special population programs reinstated only a very small portion of the $1.2 million that was cut in the previous biennium.

Private School Vouchers

Senate leaders had vowed to make state funding for vouchers a top priority, but House leaders were uniformly lukewarm to the idea. Budget battles eventually led to an amendment that prohibited the use of any state funding for vouchers, which was adopted with more than two-thirds of the House. Despite Senate leaders’ efforts to incorporate vouchers into other legislative pieces, the House action effectively closed the door on this divisive education issue for 2013 session.

High-Stakes Testing and Accountability

Public concerns with the state’s testing agenda led to a pull-back on state assessments in the 2013 session. The primary target was a reduction in the number of end-of-course exams that Texas high school students will be required to take from the current 12 to five beginning in the next school year. The change means that, rather than three years of end-of-course exams in English, math, science and social studies, students will now be tested only in English I, English II, Algebra I, biology and U.S. history. School districts will have the option of assessing students in English II and Algebra II. While it is critical that the state collect some assessment data to hold schools accountable for student achievement with data disaggregated by major sub-groups, the fact remains that Texas has retained the high-stakes elements of testing where a student’s performance on these few assessments is used to determine his or her eligibility for promotion and graduation.

And incredibly, the Texas Education Agency has responded by telling schools that they no longer need to provide accelerated instruction for students who did not pass end-of-course exams in Algebra I, English I, English II, biology and U.S. history this year.

Student Curriculum and Tracking

Prior to 2011, Texas was among national leaders in requiring that all students graduate college ready by adopting, as its default, high school curriculum that came to be known as the 4-by-4 – meaning four years of high school English, mathematics, science and social studies for all students. In 2011, the rigor of the 4-by-4 requirement was diluted by allowing one of the four required math and one of the required science courses to be taught in what was referred to as “applied manner.” This means that the content of the class could be delivered in a modified approach that, for example, incorporated the math material in building trades class or science material in an applied career focused class. Concerns with the relative academic rigor of “regular” versus “applied” classes led to the placating requirement that teachers leading such classes would meet the same requirements as teachers teaching regular 4-by-4 content classes.

Two years ago, the legislature also established three graduation tracks: minimum, recommended and distinguished achievement. A fourth path, “career and technology,” was interwoven within the recommended program. These tracks represented a step away from rigor and were expected to have the effect of denying some students the opportunity to go to and graduate from college.

Following the 2011 changes, business manufacturing interests continued to complain that too many Texas high school graduates were not sufficiently prepared to go directly into their workplaces. Another faction, who included some educational leaders, never accepted the idea that all students should have the option of attending college after graduation, preferring a return to the era where some students could pursue college prep courses, while others were directed toward vocational or technical classes. Working together, these interests succeeded in convincing the majority of Texas policymakers that schools should not be required to provide a high quality education to all students.

The end result of bitter debates led to the adoption of curriculum reforms this year that substantially dilute the graduation requirements for Texas high school students. Rather than providing a 4-by-4 high quality curriculum, the new default “Foundation Plan” requires four years of English, but only three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies – totaling three fewer advanced core content courses. Rounding out graduation requirements are two years of a foreign language and five electives to include one credit in fine arts and one in physical education.

In addition, students will be required to select an endorsement, resulting in all students graduating with 26 total credits. The five possible endorsements (that likely will not be available in all districts) include:

  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) endorsement – which requires a student to take additional advanced math, science, technology or engineering courses.
  • Business and industry endorsement – which adds courses directly related to database management, information technology, communications, accounting, finance, marketing, graphic design, architecture, construction, welding, logistics, automotive technology, agricultural science, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
  • Public services endorsement – which adds courses in health sciences and occupations, education and training law enforcement, and culinary arts and hospitality.
  • Arts and humanities endorsement – which adds courses related to political science, world languages, cultural studies, English literature, history and fine arts.
  • Multidisciplinary studies endorsement – which includes the core foundation curriculum and allows a student to:
    • select courses from the curriculum of each of the other endorsement areas; and
    • earn credits in a variety of advanced courses from multiple content areas sufficient to complete the distinguished level of achievement under the foundation program.

All entering freshmen in 2014-15 will be required to select an endorsement track. Students who are sophomores or above in that year will be given the option of shifting out of the 4-by-4 into an endorsement track.

Students may continue to earn a distinguished achievement diploma, re-worked as a distinguished achievement designation for the foundation school program. Additionally school districts are instructed to include new “outstanding performance acknowledgements” in high school transcripts and diplomas for outstanding performance in dual credit courses, bilingualism and biliteracy, outstanding performance on college or AP tests or IB examinations, outstanding performance on the PSAT, ACT-Plan, ACT or SAT, or earning a nationally- or internationally-recognized business or industry certification or license.

Accountability for English Learner Education

Efforts to improve the transparency of the Texas Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS) system by requiring that English language learner performance at elementary, middle and high school levels would be reported separately were once again resisted by state education agency representatives and school staff. Since its creation, the PBMAS system has used the aggregated scores for all ELL students in grades K-12 in a school district to determine if it is effectively serving its students. The problem with the approach, which is currently being challenged in federal courts, is that the higher level achievement of the ELL students served in the state’s elementary level programs hides the gross under-achievement of ELL students served at the middle and high school level. The failure to shed more light on programs serving secondary ELLs marks the third straight legislative session where efforts to rectify such misleading reporting have been rejected.

Charter Schools Expansion

Despite some policymaker reservations about increasing the number of charter schools operating in Texas, the legislature proceeded to expand the cap on charters from 215 to 305, to be increased incrementally over the next five years. Charters also are allowed to be given first option for purchasing school buildings no longer wanted by local school districts. In response to ongoing under-performance and weak financial accountability in some charter schools, the legislature opted to strengthen state oversight, including accelerated closure of under-performing charter schools.

In a related development, a 2013 national study of charter operations found that key features in state oversight of charter schools – particularly initial charter approval, performance management, replication procedures and charter school closures – were major factors in long-term successful charter school operations (CREDO, 2013). This latest study found Texas charters were among the weakest in the country.

Conclusion

Overall, state policymakers failed to do much to improve education quality in the state. While minimally increasing public school funding, serious pullbacks in its commitment to academic rigor, reducing the amount of information collected on students’ performance in a variety of high school courses, and expanding charter schools without first eliminating the number of low performing charter operations combined demonstrate the lack of state leadership commitment to Texas children and to investing in our state’s future. As has often been the case, it likely will again take a court mandate to improve funding equity and greater citizen outcries to ensure that all students across the state have access to high quality teaching and all are prepared to succeed in college.

Resources

IDRA. Tracking, Endorsements and Differentiated Diplomas – When ‘Different’ Really is Less, IDRA Policy Note (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2013).

IDRA. Why More Charter Schools and School Vouchers Are Not Needed in Texas, IDRA Policy Brief (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2013).

CREDO. National Charter School Study 2013 (Sanford, Calif., Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, 2013.

Texas Education Agency. “TEA announces initial assessment requirements under HB 5,” news release (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, June 12, 2013).

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the IDRA director of policy. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]

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