• by María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., and Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2001
In the November-December 2000 issue of the IDRA Newsletter, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) outlined a set of nine priorities for public education. In that article we identified an array of recommended policy reforms needed to improve the quality of Texas public education. The policy issues we addressed included nine areas that, in our judgement, significantly affect the short- and long-term prospects for student success. These nine priority areas are:
- School dropouts,
- Open enrollment charter schools,
- Disciplinary alternative education programs,
- In-grade retention,
- High stakes testing and accountability,
- School facilities funding,
- Access to higher education,
- Access to comprehensible instruction for students learning English, and
- Use of public money for private schooling.
When the session ended in May, the progress made in a few areas was outweighed by the lack of action around too many issues. If asked to grade the legislature’s overall effort, at best it would rate a “C-,” and for some areas perhaps a “D” or “F.”
Most pronounced in the 2001 debates was the distraction caused by bitter battles over the re-drawing of legislative districts, leaving little time or energy for substantive leadership on important education issues. Even the long-needed adoption of state-funded health insurance for teachers was delayed until the last hours of the session. The exclusion of retired educators from this important new coverage left most observers feeling less than jubilant about that achievement.
To their credit – and more accurately to the credit of a handful of insistent legislators who would not be denied – a few bright spots can be noted for the 2001 Texas legislative session. The issues and how they relate to IDRA’s nine priority areas are outlined below.
In the November-December issue of the IDRA Newsletter, we pointed out that the state definition of a “dropout” must be revised so that all students are counted. In order for the state dropout estimates to be credible, a number of reforms need to be considered, specifically:
- Change the definition of who is considered a school dropout to exclude those who received a General Education Development (GED) certificate, non-verified transfers and other non-verified leavers from high school graduation counts.
- Require reporting of numbers of students graduating with a high school diploma to help verify reported dropout counts.
- Include longitudinal dropout rates in the state accountability rating systems.
Following the 1999 legislative session, many people around the state became increasingly aware of the problems associated with the way the state required districts to calculate and report dropout rates. The state was so concerned with the issue that it appointed an interim committee to study the methods used to calculate dropout rates and recommend ways in which the counting and reporting system could be strengthened.
After convening hearings on the issue, the interim committee drafted a set of recommendations that included developing a revised approach focused on the number of students who “complete” either high school or a GED program and tightening procedures for auditing school district dropout records. Though a potential improvement, these recommendations fell far short of the sweeping changes many critics had hoped would emerge from the committee.
Testimony presented before the committee included calls for an extensive revamping of the state’s dropout counting and reporting procedures. In testimony before the committee, IDRA and numerous others, proposed wholesale changes in the state’s dropout counting and reporting procedures to restore credibility to the state dropout numbers. Concerns that the effect of wholesale changes would lead to a major reductions in the number of schools rated “exemplary” or “recognized” contributed to some legislators’ reluctance to make the extensive changes.
Instead, the state opted to institutionalize the existing school leaver process that it had been developing over the last several years. In that reporting process, schools are required to create an individual record reflecting what they believe to be the status of every student who is initially enrolled in a school system but who leaves the school system prior to graduating.
The leaver reporting system includes over-reporting categories ranging from “enrolled at another public school in Texas” to “returned to home country.” Of the 46 leaver codes, only 20 are allowed to be used in developing a total dropout count. Too many of the categories require no actual verification of student status (other than a weak “assurance” that the student “intends” to re-enroll in another school system or “intends to pursue a GED”).
Despite its recognized weaknesses, the senate leadership insisted on the adoption of a completion rate system based on the questionable school leaver system. The state’s use of this approach will continue to yield dropout numbers that lack credibility in most circles, save a few that seem more concerned with having the state and local school districts “look good” in the eyes of the public – despite numerous stories in the state’s major newspapers that question the legitimacy of the state and local school system reported dropout numbers.
It has become increasingly clear that state leaders will be reluctant to make substantive changes in this area without greater public outcries about the sorry state of Texas’ dropout reporting system. As in other major state reforms, what is required is the development of public will that conveys that the gross understating of state and local dropout numbers will no longer be tolerated. Until this happens, thousands of students will continue to be lost from the Texas system, uncounted and unheard, while some state leaders and local school officials continue to turn a blind eye to the real dropout numbers. (The next issue of the IDRA Newsletter will provide the latest results of IDRA’s annual attrition study.)
Open Enrollment Charter Schools
Based on evaluation of findings concerning open-enrollment charter schools, IDRA believes that the state of Texas should:
- Initiate a moratorium on approvals for new open enrollment charter schools,
- Increase its oversight of all charter school operations, and
- Create mechanisms for accelerated action in those charter schools found to be under-performing.
Four years after its initial foray into the creation of state-funded charter schools, the Texas Legislature began to move toward exerting greater control over this expanding group of schools. Despite some resistance among charter school supporters, the legislature adopted a number of substantive changes to existing charter school policies.
Perhaps the most striking was its decision to impose a two-year moratorium on the number of charter schools that would be allowed to operate, limiting that number to the 215 charters that had been authorized in state law. With the adoption of the cap, the state allowed for the opening of no more than about 50 new charters over the next two years. Public colleges and universities may also now set up their own charter schools. These would not be subject to the 215 cap. The legislature eliminated the category of “at risk charter schools” (which were charter schools whose enrollment included a 75 percent enrollment of students classified as “at risk” of dropping out before graduating).
The state’s decision to increase its oversight of existing charter schools and to strengthen state requirements for these schools was equally significant. Among the changes adopted were more stringent financial accounting and reporting procedures and clarification of the applicability of certain regulations, including open meetings and nepotism regulations. The legislature also strengthened requirements related to charter school staffing, requiring teachers to have at least a high school diploma and for all staff to undergo criminal background checks. This was not previously required of any charter school operation in Texas.
Many of these changes resulted from increasing public complaints of some local charter school operations and from an ongoing state evaluation of open enrollment charter schools commissioned by the legislature when the charter school options were first funded. The interim evaluation also helped establish that many well-intended charter schools lacked the expertise or capacity to effectively operate alternative educational programs.
While initially seen as an opportunity to free schools from what some people perceived as excessive state regulation and supervision, several years of actual operation quickly established that these more autonomous schools were in need of more extensive oversight and supervision than initially assumed. Spurred by extensive evaluation data and high profile media coverage of some schools that had serious problems, the legislature finally moved to curtail some aspects of its initial charter school efforts. It remains to be seen whether the changes adopted will be enough to strengthen what many people are beginning to see as another educational panacea that failed to deliver on its original promises.
Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs
Due to IDRA and other groups concerned with the workings of the state’s disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs), numerous modifications were suggested for the existing program. IDRA recommendations included:
- Require that DAEPs collect and report more student and program data, including student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) and other measures and discipline and academic achievement after students return to the regular school program.
- Require greater communication and coordination between DAEPs and regular school programs.
- Limit DAEP referrals to the most serious offenders (as originally intended).
Require greater comparability in program and staff credentials between DAEPs and regular schools.
Despite emerging evidence that has caused many people to question the effectiveness of DAEPs in improving school safety and despite serious concerns with the negative academic consequences that result from students’ placements in DAEP programs, the legislature resisted attempts to improve the existing program.
Legislation introduced by Representative Dora Olivo to more closely monitor the impacts of DAEP placements on pupils and to address school coordination and due process concerns went largely unheeded. Educator groups were reluctant to support reform of existing DAEP policies. This resistance is based on the perception that curbing schools’ tendency to remove what are perceived to be “problem” students somehow erodes teacher and school authority to deal with students as they see fit, irrespective of parent or student opinions to the contrary.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of these developments was the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) failure to complete and make available to state lawmakers its statewide evaluation of DAEP programs, which was first set for completion in December and was repeatedly postponed. The data still has not been made available.
In an interesting side note, the editors of Texas Education News were able to acquire comprehensive data to compile a limited state-level profile. In that summary, published in the February 16, 2001, issue, Texas Education News reported that in 1999-00 a total of 83,159 pupils were referred to DAEPs in Texas, with 52 percent enrolled in high school, 40 percent in middle school, and 7.3 percent in elementary school.
According to IDRA calculations, the 83,159 pupils referred last year represent an increase of 10,162 from the 1996-97 totals, a net increase of 13.9 percent in a three-year period. Texas Education News also reports that 41.5 percent of DAEP referrals involved Hispanic pupils, 34.6 percent involved White pupils, and 22.6 percent involved African American students. Special education pupils, who constitute only 12 percent of the state student population, represented 21.6 percent of DAEP referrals. Low-income pupils, who constitute 49 percent of Texas student enrollment, made up 51.9 percent of DAEP placements (Texas Education News, March 26, 2001).
As has been the case since DAEPs were created, the primary reason cited for student placements were violations involving discretionary reasons created by local school systems, rather than the serious offenses that were the original driving force behind creation of off-campus disciplinary action programs. According to the Texas Education News analysis, 77.3 percent of removals were based on violations of local districts’ codes of conduct, and only 20 percent were for the more serious offenses that require mandatory referrals.
The Texas Education News summary also indicates that students spent an average of 26.5 days in DAEPs – the equivalent of 5+ weeks – with 25 percent being referred more than once during the school year.
Analyses of TAAS performance indicates that DAEP-referred students scored lower when compared to non-DAEP students, no doubt impacted by the less-qualified staffing typically assigned to most DAEP campuses.
Those data were not made available to all state policymakers to allow them to consider the implications of the findings for existing DAEP policies. Certainly no changes for reform were proposed by the state education agency despite its own access to these early findings. Any substantive changes may require future litigation to accelerate reform or another report to help guide reform proposals in the 2003 legislative session.
Based on extensive review of research on the ineffectiveness of in-grade retention in spurring improved student achievement and on retention’s documented relationship to students dropping out, IDRA has long recommended that the issue be given serious thought and that it be the last of all options considered. Specifically, IDRA recommends that Texas:
- Modify the state student retention policy so that in-grade retention becomes the last option considered,
- Eliminate the use of the TAAS as the single criteria for determining grade placement, and
- Modify grade placement committee procedures to require not a unanimous vote but a majority vote to promote students.
Some legislators were concerned with the possible disastrous effects of legislation adopted in 1999 that calls for automatic retention of third-, fifth- and eighth-grade pupils who fail to pass sections of the TAAS. They offered proposals that would either (1) delay the punitive aspects of the bill for one year or (2) modify the criteria used to make this high stakes retention decisions by requiring that local grade placement committees consider multiple criteria including grades, other test scores and other indicators of student ability.
State assessment and accountability purists argued that such safeguards are unnecessary and would ultimately weaken the state’s much touted accountability system. Despite such opposition, the proposals to postpone the adoption of automatic retention, championed by Representative Sylvester Turner, and to use multiple criteria as proposed by Representative Olivo passed the House of Representatives. But they were stalled and eventually derailed by the Senate leadership’s intent on maintaining the status quo in the state testing and accountability system.
High Stakes Testing and Accountability
In the area of high stakes testing and accountability, IDRA has urged a similar conservative approach, relying on literature that recommends that no single measure be used to make life altering decisions for individual pupils. Specifically IDRA recommended that:
- No single test should be used as the single or primary basis for decisions related to students’ graduation or grade-level promotion,
- State testing data should be used as one indicator but not the single criterion for judging school effectiveness, and
- All students should be included in state assessment systems, while at the same time ensuring that those instruments are directly linked to what is taught and to the language of instruction.
Critics of the state’s use of a single test score – students’ performance on the exit level TAAS (first administered in the 10th grade) – have long worked to convince state leaders to alter existing state policy to consider the test as just one of several indicators used to judge students’ academic proficiency.
Among additional criteria suggested have been grades, teacher recommendations, and scores on alternative assessment measures. All attempts to broaden the criteria used to make graduation decisions were once again rejected by proponents of the TAAS. This was in part out of a pervasive fear that adopting a more reasoned approach would be seen by some as a weakening of the state’s stance on accountability.
Despite many test maker’s insistence that no one test should be used to make life altering decisions involving individual students, state leaders continued to ignore conventional wisdom, choosing to leave existing state policies in place. Thus, they have assured that the thousands of pupils who have completed all other state requirements will continue to be denied their diplomas. In an ironic twist, these same pupils are excluded from both graduation and dropout counts – becoming invisible students in the accountability system.
School Facilities Funding
In November-December, IDRA recommended that the legislature continue the reforms it initiated in the preceding two sessions and do the following.
- Significantly expand state support for all types of school facilities.
- Make the application process less dependent on local property wealth, and less dependent on the level of state funding available.
During the 2001 session, the legislature did provide increased funding of the school facilities program. Unfortunately, the level of funding provided 13 million, which was still seen by many people as insufficient to cover all of the state’s existing school building needs. More importantly, the shortfall will have the state continuing to rank all applicants on the basis of perceived need. Thus, state support will be denied to schools that do not make it beyond the cut off – which is dictated primarily by the shortfall of state funding provided for the program.
Though the legislature may have done enough to keep itself out of the courtroom, the persistent under-funding of school facilities creates ongoing pressure for some schools to support these efforts primarily with local property tax dollars, while others, due to relative need, are left without any type of state support.
While IDRA continues to support the prioritizing of facilities funding based on wealth and need, the state must recognize that facilities are part of what is required in every community and make available whatever funds are needed to make this more of a shared state and local effort comparable to that provided for non-facilities aspects of Texas public education.
Access to Higher Education
In the area of higher education access, IDRA focused on three issues: expanding financial support for student applicants, improving the process used to consider applicants to post secondary state funded institutions, and higher education accountability. Specifically, we recommended the following.
- Study the impact of recent reforms in higher education, including the Texas “10 Percent Plan,” and provide additional state-funded scholarships for low-wealth pupils.
- Explore the creation of new initiatives that will strengthen coordination and alignment between kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education and higher education.
- Create new processes to more effectively link data collected at the K-12 and higher education levels to facilitate student tracking and information exchange.
- Accelerate the creation of a system of higher education accountability that gives significant weight to undergraduate and graduate student recruitment, persistence and graduation.
Despite some interest in all of the issues outlined above, state efforts related to higher education were primarily limited to expanding funding levels for most state colleges and universities, providing some increases in state scholarship programs, revising curriculum requirements for future college applicants, and modifying provisions related to tuition charges applicable to a small sub-group of immigrant pupils graduating from Texas high schools.
In the area of higher education funding, the legislature invested an additional 1,086.2 million, with the greatest amounts going to the two flagship universities (University of Texas and Texas A&M) and the rest receiving some more modest increases in funding.
To its credit, the legislature acknowledged and acted on the need to provide additional funding for state scholarships to support student enrollment in colleges and universities. The state increased the level of funding for the Texas Grant program by $335 million and modified eligibility (financial need) criteria to expand the pool of eligible applicants. State funding for the Teach for Texas Grant, a program designed to increase the numbers of pupils enrolling in state teacher preparation programs, was also modestly expanded by an additional $8 million.
The legislature revised higher education admissions requirements by phasing-in a new requirement. Texas students who hope to enroll in a state four-year institution must take the state’s high school recommended curriculum. This is the more comprehensive graduation curriculum offered in Texas high schools that involves enrolling in additional math, language and science courses. Also, students will be required to enroll in the state’s recommended program in high school as the default curriculum. They must have their parents permission to do otherwise.
Attempts to modify the extent to which state colleges and universities were allowed to use single admissions test scores such as the SAT to determine student admissions was also hotly debated. Reform proponents urged the legislature to limit the extent of value or weight that could be given to a single college admissions test (SAT or ACT) score. After extensive discussion, the House of Representatives approved the measure only to have it encounter much stiffer opposition in the state Senate where it finally died awaiting a hearing in committee, never granted by the Senate Education Committee chair.
Despite an acknowledged need for additional K-12 and higher education coordination, the legislature did not consider any bold new initiatives in this area. Policymakers also recognized the need to better align K-12 and higher education data systems but took no new action. The legislature did not address attempts to advance early state efforts to create a new, more comprehensive college and university accountability system.
Causes for this lack of action in higher education are difficult to discern. One over-riding factor in many legislative discussions was the political leadership’s decision to defer any proposal that required additional state funding until late in the session. This move was prompted by the realization that the state would be hard pressed to maintain funding for existing programs, let alone reserve state monies for issues that were put off in the 1999 session, including notable increases for higher education.
In this atmosphere, policymakers who proposed any measure that required new state funding had to fight against a strong current. Many of these measures failed to make it out of committee. Those that did were often thwarted at other levels as leaders fought to keep cost related items off the legislative table.
Access to Comprehensible Instruction for Students Learning English
In this area, IDRA had recommended that state policymakers:
- Assess the implications of providing opportunities for expanded access to dual language instruction that would include all interested pupils,
- Support the creation of pilot dual language programs so the state can gauge the level of interest in such programs and the impact of these options on teacher training needs and state funding formulae, and
- Make distinctions between required and optional programs and ensure state compliance with existing state bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) statutes.
Another area where lack of legislative action was perceived as at least partially beneficial was the lack of any substantive effort to alter state requirements on how Texas public schools must address the needs of the more than 500,000 pupils who are identified as being in the process of learning English, referred to in Texas as being limited-English-proficient (LEP).
Choosing to differ from Arizona and California, Texas smartly continues to require that schools provide bilingual or ESL programs to LEP students until they develop sufficient English language skills to succeed in the all-English curriculum.
On a related note, at the urging of some school district personnel, the Texas Legislature chose to exclude students identified as recent immigrants from the state assessment and accountability systems, providing for expanded testing exemptions that could extend up to three years. The impact that this new change will have on districts with high concentrations of recent immigrant students will be monitored closely by IDRA and others to ensure that the option is not abused and does not weaken the educational programs offered to these students.
Related efforts to create a new state program to include opportunities for non-LEP pupils to acquire a second language through participation in what are commonly known as “dual language programs” was also set aside by legislative inaction.
Strongly supported by Texas’ League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other bilingual program advocates, the dual language program proposal met lukewarm response outside the minority caucuses. It was opposed in part because of concerns that it would require additional state funding to support the anticipated thousands of students who would choose to participate. Unfortunately, counter-arguments citing the social and economic benefits that could be derived from expanding the state’s pool of bilingual individuals fell upon deaf ears.
Use of Public Money for Private Schooling
Perhaps more than any issue considered, the Texas Legislature’s refusal to give serious consideration to any proposals that would have provided some form of state funding to subsidize student enrollment in private schools stands as this sessions’ watermark. IDRA’s recommendations in this area included the following.
- Public tax money should be limited to use for public schools.
- Public schools should continue to be held to high standards and be made accountable for student outcomes, including not only achievement, but also high school graduation.
In contrast to intensive debates on the concept of providing some form of state funding for school vouchers noted during the previous three legislative sessions, little time was spent on debating the issue in the 2001 session. Since its inception, most state leaders have conceded that escalating public opposition to providing state funding for private school vouchers made many voucher proponents reluctant to open the issue to debate.
One significant new development that may have contributed to growing disenchantment with school vouchers was the Office for Civil Rights’ recent ruling that parents of students with special needs were giving up rights protected in public schools (e.g., that special-needs students have those special needs addressed) if they opted out of a public school environment and enrolled in a private school setting that, by law, is not required to offer special education or similar services.
Whether impacted by or reflecting a national trend indicating that what little support for vouchers had existed was quickly ebbing, voucher proponents were notably less visible in Austin. Despite the low profile of the pro-voucher camp, voucher opponents – which includes groups as diverse as the Texas PTA, the Texas Freedom Network, the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Public Education, major teacher groups, and IDRA – continued to closely monitor voucher-related developments and succeeded in keeping the issue in the background for most of the legislative session. Attempts to dilute the continued use of high standards and the accountability system used to rate public schools were also rebuffed.
Little Significant Progress in 2001
Taken as a whole, the 2001 Texas legislative session will not be perceived as memorable. While some improvements were made in the areas of charter schools and access to higher education, the session will most likely be remembered for what it failed to address. Some suggest that the session lacked leadership around major educational issues. Others complain of a gridlock fed by a desire to protect the state’s former governor’s image in the area of state education reforms. Still others blame the lack of adequate state surplus funding needed to subsidize the extensive number of changes still needed in the state’s public education system. Whatever the reasons, in contrast to other years, most education reform proponents went home disappointed and hopeful of better outcomes in 2003.
Robledo Montecel, M., and A. Cortez. “Nine Priorities for Public Education Policy Reforms in Texas,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2000).
Texas Education News. “TEA Paints Statistical Pictures of Disciplinary AEPs for ‘99-2000” (March 26, 2001).
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the division director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at email@example.com.
[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]