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Stay the Course on Public Education Accountability

By Russell Withers, General Counsel & Senior Policy Analyst. Apr. 20, 2020

Texas is a strange place right now. On the one hand, there is a clamor for testing. Any health care provider with a patient experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms wants to be able to test that patient. On the other hand, testing school students as part of the public education accountability system continues to encounter opposition. However, the fundamental point of testing – to understand someone’s condition and to be able to respond accordingly – is equally valid in both the healthcare and education arenas.

The changes made to daily life over the course of the last several weeks have been jarring. The driving force behind these changes is the COVID-19 pandemic. From that force flowed a myriad public policy changes, each with a cascading effect. Public education is a great example. People are told to stay home to help slow the spread of the virus, which requires public school closures, which means that state assessments cannot be administered, which means the cancellation of those requirements and the cancellation of the A-F campus and district accountability grades that flow in no small part from how students perform on those assessments.

Governor Abbott’s decision to waive the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) examinations for 2020 “reflects the Governor’s emphasis on public health over all other priorities at this time.” However, as his press release emphasizes:

In normal times, Texas’ assessment system provides educators and parents with reliable information on whether or not their students have mastered grade-level content. The Governor remains committed to ensuring parents, students, and school districts have access to this information in future years.

Parents of public school students should be thankful that the Governor took the time to make this point. A constituency for eliminating STAAR and A-F accountability exists and will likely use this opportunity to push that agenda. For example, the Texas Association of School Administrators has already published its 2021 legislative priorities, which states open opposition to A-F ratings in their current form and opposition to accountability based on students’ test performance. That’s a position taken before cancellation for the year due to the pandemic.

The Legislature has responded well to criticisms of the state’s assessments and accountability measures where appropriate. For example, in 2019 the 86th Legislature passed House Bill 3906 (Huberty | Sp: Taylor), which made it the state’s official policy to make state assessments as short as practicable. It allowed a great deal of flexibility in administering the tests by shortening them and allowing them to be broken up over multiple days and sessions. The bill even eliminated several testing requirements, such as writing assessments for fourth grade and seventh grade students.

It is understandable why high-stakes testing is not the most popular policy, but it would be a mistake to turn a one-off cancellation of assessments and accountability out of necessity into momentum for abandoning public school accountability entirely. Parents of more than 5 million public school students have a right to know how their children are performing relative to other students, and how their schools are serving them relative to the rest of the state. And even though parents generally have a great deal of trust in their teachers, administrators, and schools, they deserve better than taking someone’s word for it. They pay the taxes that fund those public schools and, for the most part, they have very few options other than sending their children to the schools to which they are geographically assigned.

For this reason, it is critical that the state holds the line on accountability. Fundamentally, some measure of testing must always be a part of a functional accountability system. In no other area of the public sector would it be conscionable to spend tens of billions of tax dollars without an expectation of accountability for how that money is spent. After all, education is the single largest expenditure in the state budget; public schools receive more than $60 billion per year.

The silver lining in the current crisis is that millions of students will be given an opportunity to utilize digital education tools, more flexible schedules, and other non-traditional learning methods. It should become clear to everyone during this period that the approach to education need not be one-size-fits-all. If those methods become available to a degree that permanently gives students greater choices in education, then maybe strict accountability measures for public schools will no longer be necessary. For now, however, because options beyond the traditional public school are so limited for most students, parents need to know how their local school—which for most of them is their only option—is performing.

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