Last week, the Statesman delivered good news for Texas: STAAR passing rates jumped after a recent round of retakes.  This is a big win not only for Texas schoolchildren and teachers, but also for state policy.  The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) identified the students in need of a little extra help, and teachers provided additional instruction. Many of those students were then able to demonstrate proficiency.

This is a familiar pattern for proponents of consequential accountability.  Since the rise of accountability in the mid-90s, younger students have improved a grade level or more in both math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Unsurprisingly, the greatest gains have been among students who are traditionally underserved:  African Americans, Hispanics, and students with disabilities.  Before statewide assessments, these students could be conveniently hidden from scrutiny.

The alternatives to a strong system of assessments and accountability – failing to identify these students or, if identified, to pressure schools to provide them assistance – are unfortunately well-known to Texans.  We did it that way for years.  Still, even before most committees begin their hearings, plenty of legislators would return the state to that old system or worse.

The initial House budget zeroes out funding for assessments completely.  While contravening federal law might be expected from this crowd, it is an odd turn of conservatism when members would hand over billions of dollars to a government program, the K-12 school system, without asking any questions about performance.  Of the bills that call for a minimal level of assessments, most require students pass only the algebra 1 and English 3 end-of-course exams.  Most LBJers probably took algebra in eighth grade, so this rightfully seems like a low bar for four years of learning in high school.  A lone English 3 assessment, on the other hand, could be a brick wall for many students and is harsher than asking students to pass two of three assessments in each core subject.

The discussion in the House also demonstrates a profound loss of institutional memory. Almost half of its members weren’t members at all when HB 3 passed in 2009 and directed the state to transition to end-of-course exams.  In a series of unanimous votes, HB 3 was even supported by school groups.  Plenty of member teachers were thrilled to no longer have to interrupt their physics lessons to teach refreshers on measurement, biology, and chemistry for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKs).

The Senate, whether because its members remember the conversation regarding HB 3 end-of-course exams or simply demonstrate Burkean humility, will hopefully take a more responsible approach.  SB 3 by Senator Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education committee, builds flexibility into students’ graduation requirements with a foundational program – four courses in English, three in math and social studies, and two in science – that can be supplemented with additional coursework to earn different endorsements.  Plenty of proponents of college- and career-readiness would like to see a three science credit minimum, as well as an industry certificate requirement for the business/industry endorsement.  But most importantly, the Senate should continue to require that students demonstrate end-of-course proficiency in the courses they choose to take.

This approach would be wise in that it accepts the premise of former Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken, that students should have multiple pathways to career- and college-readiness. However, it utterly rejects Pauken’s prescription to turn over all oversight to the thousand-plus independent school districts.  Even as Pauken and others call for students to acquire industry-recognized certificates that signify a standard level of proficiency to employers, they somehow miss that a high school diploma functions the same way. 

Without external oversight of courses and assessments, one hundred percent of our students could graduate.  Districts could easily lower their standards, limit required coursework, and refuse to ask the hard questions as to whether students are truly being prepared.  If we really wanted, we could even graduate students who still struggle with basic reading.  Sure, these students would predominately come from low-income or minority families and would be many of the same students that Texas needs to succeed if Texas is to succeed.  But we did it before, and the Legislature may well choose to do it again. 

As plenty of interest groups sound the retreat, we should remember that reform is an option as well.  HB 3 may well have overreached – too many tripwires, not enough flexibility, and a messy rollout – but the guiding principle of school accountability should be maintained.  The Legislature may ease the number of required assessments or widen the path to graduation without tearing down Texas’ system of consequential accountability. For students and taxpayers alike, reform, not retreat, is the right choice.