By passing Senate Bill 1557 last year, the Texas legislature greenlit a pilot program that could see school districts around the state substantially scale back the amount of standardized testing used for assessing student progress.
The Texas Tribune reports that following calls by its former Commissioner Robert Scott to evaluate schools based on more than just what happens on test days, the Texas Education Agency has selected 23 high-performing school districts that range across demographic lines for an experiment that will give them flexibility to develop their own accountability system — one that will differ greatly from the high stakes test-based system in place statewide.
By the end of this month the districts that choose to participate in the pilot will be submitting requests for a waiver from the standardized tests mandated by the TEA for all districts in the state. The exact details of what will replace it will have to wait until the representatives from all the districts get together for their first meeting sometime later this year. Their finalized plans will still need to be approved during the next session of the state Legislature.
With any proposal, the consortium will also have to navigate contentious differences between two equally outspoken camps: those who believe that the success of reform requires a complete reworking of the current system and those who view any changes as a lowering of the rigorous standards established by the Legislature in 2009.
In June, a coalition including the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, held a Capitol news conference to announce that its members would oppose any additional funding to public education if lawmakers approved changes to those standards.
At the moment, it doesn't appear that the districts are interested in doing anything of the sort. Andrew Erben, president of the Texas Institute for Education Reform, one of the groups that took part in the news conference, sees the pilot program as a chance for a small number of districts to work together to find an assessment solution that will function better than what is in place now without disturbing the workings of the rest of the state. Still, to retain the support of his organization, the consortium can't get rid of testing entirely, if only to allow for easy comparison with the rest of Texas school districts.
Jeff Turner, the superintendent of Coppell ISD — one of the 23 districts chosen for the pilot — said the idea is not to do away with feedback entirely, but to structure it in such a way as to allow teachers to spend the majority of their class time on instruction rather than test preparation. Not only could that approach improve student outcomes, but it could also prove to be a real moneysaver as well.
On the subject of funding, he also had a message for state officials in advance of the next legislative session.
"What you give us we are going to take and use differently if you would just give us the flexibility," he said. "And we are going to whip you in terms of test scores."