Kress: Honor the Texas Constitution on Education

Austin American Statesman

Kress: Honor the Texas Constitution on Education

By Sandy Kress

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Texas has taken major steps to improve public education in the past two decades.
Our elementary and middle school students have achieved some of the best academic gains in the country.

But these gains have not extended to high school. Almost a quarter of our students become dropouts. And only about a quarter of our students graduate high school ready for college or good jobs. To address this problem, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and legislative leaders made crucial changes in policy.

The commissioners of education and higher education set impressive college and career standards. The State Board of Education adopted significantly improved K-12 content standards that establish more clearly and rigorously what our students need to know to succeed.

The state education agency scrapped high school tests that had little to do with what students were studying in class and replaced them with end-of-course exams that are aligned to the improved standards.

The agency replaced tests for grades 3-8 that didn’t permit a good measure for student growth with improved tests that are better aligned to the new standards and can show student growth.

With 20-20 hindsight, we might agree that the reform law, HB 3, which was adopted almost unanimously, somewhat overshot. Must students achieve a passing average on all high school exams to graduate? This may be desirable but also too ambitious. Must districts count these exams as 15 percent of students’ grades? It’s reasonable, but maybe that goes too far.

Yet, fixing these problems in HB 3 and throwing the legislation overboard are two very different things. We must be very careful to repair without destroying our leaders’ efforts to move our state forward.

Recall that these reforms centered on getting the standards of learning far better aligned to expectations of college and career. The new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum standards are worlds better than the old standards.

Teaching effectively to the new standards is key. And providing appropriate support for teaching to the standards matters a lot.

Having aligned assessments matters, too. The old high school Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests did not relate to the curricula taught in classes. Nor did they have performance standards reflective of college and career success. Thus, they didn’t measure teaching to the standards or learning to the right goals. The new end-of-course exams are aligned in all respects.

The plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit have argued that educators need the resources to succeed under HB 3. It is ironic that friends of the plaintiffs are trying to eviscerate the very law upon which the plaintiffs are pinning their case for more money.  The courts should pay close attention to this drama. The Supreme Court has said that the presence of a strong state accountability system is fundamental to fulfilling the constitutional requirement of a general diffusion of knowledge for students across Texas.

I won’t opine on its merits, but the plaintiffs make an argument that it takes greater resources to meet greater expectations. But there’s no argument for the plaintiffs to expect appreciably more money while their friends are trying to blow up the system of greater expectations.

And that’s exactly what’s being done. Under certain proposals, there would be no statewide measures of success in teaching to the new statewide standards in 10 of the 15 required high school subjects deemed crucial to postsecondary success. Sure, there would be varying measures in various districts. But there would be no assurance of alignment in tests to statewide content standards, no assurance of aligned data for parents, educators, and taxpayers for achievement by all students across the state, and no assurance of accountability for teaching and learning to state standards in key subjects. Measuring for success on Advanced Placement or merit scholars or occasional and varied locally selected tests is fine, but doing so in no way provides statewide assurances for all students.

How do we know if there’s been a general diffusion of knowledge across the state unless we generally and commonly measure for it? And how do we assure a general diffusion of knowledge if our policies and practices don’t respond to objective, statewide measures?

Let us all — whether educators, businesspersons, parents, or simply concerned citizens — work together to fulfill the call of our Constitution. We must give these reforms the resources and the rigor they require to succeed. Anything less will be a loss to our state and, mostly, our children.