Curriculum & Instruction

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, the Texas Senate Education Committee, chaired by Senator Larry Taylor (R), heard public testimony regarding the student, mental health-related legislation House Bill 18 (HB 18; Price et al.).  HB18 requires teachers, counselors, and principals to receive professional development related to student mental health every year.  This training is to focus on how mental health conditions, including grief and trauma, affect student learning and behavior and how “evidence-based, grief-informed, and trauma-informed strategies” support the academic success of students.

HB 18 will also require districts to utilize mental health-related educational programs and services and to implement mental health-related curricula.   Additionally, mental health TEKS are to be embedded in grades 6-12 health classes.  Another feature of HB 18 is that school districts will be required to publish in their student handbooks and on district websites the following:

  • the policies and procedures adopted to promote the physical and mental health of students;
  • the physical and mental health resources available at each campus;
  • contact information for the nearest providers of essential public health services; and
  • contact information for the nearest local mental health authority.

In light of the latest string of student mass shooting in Texas public schools, HB18 appears to be a bold move for Texas legislature to ensure that educators are better prepared to identify the warning signs of student mental illness and that school districts are equipped with curricula, programs, and services to address the needs of students suffering from mental health and trauma-related issues.  It also appears as though Texas legislators want to use HB 18 to destigmatize mental health issues in the communities they serve.

It is not difficult to see how this bill would be received with open arms by most educators, and this was evident by the supportive comments shared during the Senate Education Committee meeting.  At first glance, I agreed that the requirements brought forth by HB18, if implemented with fidelity, could impact the growing number of students suffering from mental health and trauma-related problems in Texas public schools in a positive way.  However, after reviewing HB 18 in its entirety, I realized that there are a few potential issues with the legislation that could have some unintended, negative consequences for parents, the most salient of which is a potential student and parent backlash.  Lines 21-27 on page 23 and lines 1-3 on page 24 of HB 18 indicate that a district employee or employee of a mental health service provider (physician or nonphysician) contracted with the district would have the authority to recommend that a child have a professional evaluation.  While the bill does include language that requires written parental or guardian permission before evaluation or treatment actions are taken, it does not address steps the district will take if or when a parent declines the recommended health treatment.  The likelihood of a parent refusing recommended mental health treatment for their child may be elevated especially since the recommendations can come from a staff member who is not a mental health professional.  Will a parent who denies recommendations be reported to Child Protective Services, found liable in any way, or charged criminally for making an informed choice to refuse mental health treatment?  In this case, will the students be excluded from participating in classroom or school activities?  Will the student and parents be treated differently by the school or district?

The second issue with HB18 is related to the lack of parental oversight of the mental health programs and practice that their children will be subjected to in their schools.  Lines 9-18 on page 27 of the bill state that the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in coordination with the Health and Human Services Commission and regional services centers, will provide to districts a list of best practice-based programs and research-based practices for the implementation of HB 18.  However, it does not delineate the criteria that TEA will use for determining which services and programs will be provided to districts.  Moreover, since there is no requirement for districts to inform parents of the programs and practices they choose, the door is left open for a wide variety of resources to be legitimized and introduced to students without parental input.

Hopefully, there will be clarifications coming soon to address these potential issues for parents.  In the meantime, stay tuned as I highlight other aspects of the proposed legislation in future posts.

Today, May 6, 2019, the Texas legislators are slated to vote on a version of the school finance legislation, House Bill 3, that includes a proposal to add four more writing tests and tie school funding directly to third-grade STAAR results.  The new exams would bring the total number of annual assessments to 21 and would mark the second change to the number of tests since 2012. Currently, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) includes the following assessments:

  • Reading and Mathematics, grades 3–8;
  • Writing at grades 4 and 7;
  • Science at grades 5 and 8;
  • Social Studies at grade 8;
  • End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for English I, English II, Algebra I, Biology and U.S History; and
  • Optional End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for English III and Algebra II.

According to a Texas Monthly article published this weekend, the last-minute tinkering of the recently proposed and significant school finance House Bill 3 to include more STAAR exams and link funding to third-grade STAAR results, by the Senate Education Committee comes at a time when many critics are questioning the accuracy and efficacy of the STAAR exams. Many proponents point to the need to increase the numbers assessments in order to determine student academic progress better.  Moreover, the focus on 3rd-grade assessment levels connects to the significant body of research that links 3rd-grade reading levels to future student success outcomes.  Finally, proponents want to add more writing exams, in particular, because, under the current system, students only have four writing exams (4th grade, 7th grade, English I, and English II)

On the other hand, opponents argue that the Texas Education Agency should improve the accuracy of the STAAR exams before introducing additional assessments.  After all, it is challenging to measure student progress if the instrument is inaccurate.  Opponents also question the Senate Education Committee’s tying funding to 3rd-grade STAAR results, which merely exacerbates educators’ growing cynicism about legislators’ support of public education.

Absent in the arguments of both sides of the debate is the consideration of the real cost of adding more high-stakes tests. Regardless of the timing that additional assessments are implemented, measures such as these will not improve student achievement.  Not only will district administrators, principals, and teachers focus an inordinate amount of their attention on increasing student scores on the new tests, but issues with the accuracy of STAAR academic program and strategies to improve the quality of classroom instruction still will not be resolved or even addressed.  Ironically, adding more STAAR tests, whether now or later, will result in a “miss” with regard to the ideal goal of increasing student learning.  Today’s debate will be yet another distraction from the real and pressing need to improve teaching and learning in Texas public schools.

In an age of accountability and high stakes testing, public education has accomplished a lot. We have managed to utilize assessment data trends to identify resources and programs to support students’ educational needs. We have also learned how to breakdown objectives or learning standards to their most intricate parts to align our resources. Most of all we have developed ways to hold educators accountable for student achievement…One question remains: at what cost are we making all of these efforts? In other words, what have we sacrificed for this “data-driven” approach to education?

From the literature on students’ motivation for learning, we have come to understand that students learn more when they experience activities that they enjoy and find meaningful and interesting. However, as educators face growing pressure to prepare students to perform well in math and reading in high-stakes testing, public schools slip into predictable traps. Namely, educators implement instructional strategies that boil down content to isolated bits of information at the same time that they dramatically reduce the amount of time and resources used to engage students in creative, interdisciplinary activities and real-world projects that inspire learning.

We also know that students are motivated to work harder when they are able to personalize the purpose of learning. Yet, our high-stakes testing culture communicates to students that we value scoring well on tests as the overarching goal for engaging in learning. Sometimes in curriculum and teacher professional development, teachers and principals blur the lines between student learning and student achievement when they promote blatant “teaching to the test” practices couched in ideas like “backwards planning” or “teaching with the end in mind.”

Finally, research shows that academic achievement is influenced, in part, by self-concept and self-efficacy. Unfortunately, the heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing encourages teachers and administrators to view students as test-score increasers or suppressors rather than contributors to the learning environment or in terms of their incredible human potential. In turn, students, especially those from impoverished or at-risk environments, perceive this and come to define themselves as winners or losers on the basis of their test performance, to their academic and emotional detriment.

With our current trends, it is clear that high stakes testing and accountability are not likely to go away anytime soon.  Nevertheless, leaders in school systems can take measures to minimize their harmful effects and to foster a school culture that emphasizes student learning and preparation for life’s challenges.  Here are a few ideas to begin this process:

1. If school leaders want to ensure that students get enough test practice, they should schedule periodic practice times that are spread throughout the year rather than just two or three weeks before high-stakes tests are administered. Schools should, at least, refrain from engaging in test-prep boot camps where they shut down regular classroom instruction for intense focus specifically on the test at hand. Such activities only reinforce the impression that the test is the primary goal of schooling.

2. Administrators and teachers should work together to foster a productive mindset about testing. As a start, rebrand “tests” as “performance opportunities” and use language in the classroom that focuses on mastering knowledge, improving individual ability.

3. School leaders should focus on the value of schooling as a method to prepare how to live. As teachers use instructional resources and pedagogy that bring fun and authentic engagement back to the classroom, students can be encouraged to participate in activities that relate to what they’re going to be doing outside of and beyond school.

4. Administrators and teachers should strive to create a culture that encourages cooperation and service instead of competition. We now know that students are more likely to be successful in school when they have a sense of belonging. Making these kinds of connections leads to a more significant effort, greater persistence, and positive attitudes. Feelings of rejection have the opposite effects.

If we put the same energy and intensity that we have invested in high-stakes testing into understanding how to enhance the quality of students’ learning experiences, we might actually experience more success in getting more students to reach their full potential…and, hopefully, make room for learning in education again.

Satisfying the demand for highly skilled workers is the key to maintaining competitiveness and prosperity in the global economy.  For this reason, many educational policymakers strive to craft policies that assist educators in developing a stronger workforce.  This was the intended aim of the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act put forth by the Bush administration. However well intended the NCLB Act was, the consequences of several key requirements have turned out to be counterproductive.

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Houston iTunesU

Houston iTunesU

Recently the Texas Commissioner of Education, Michael L. Williams, announced that he was deferring implementation of a 15 percent grading requirement for the 2012-2013 school year.  This news was received by the vast majority of educators across Texas with jubilation and relief.  To put this reaction in context, you would have to understand the policy’s origins and scope.  When the state of Texas decided to upgrade its assessment and accountability system in 2009, it included a ruling that made a student’s score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) end-of-course examinations count toward15 percent of the student’s final grade in each tested subject area.

Now at first glance that would seem alarming, but when you consider the fact that students would be required to take several more assessments with more rigorous content and testing conditions, it became a serious anxiety accelerant for school administrators and educators.   Commissioner William’s decision marks the second year the rule has been deferred. In the 2011-2012 school year, more than 1,100 of the state’s more than 1,200 school districts notified the Texas Education Agency that they would be selecting the voluntary deferral option.  Even though school systems have been given a reprieve with regard to the 15% grading requirement, students still must take all STAAR tests and meet all requirements for graduation.

Even though most of the state appears to be finding a resolution, I am troubled by the majority reaction and am left with several yet-to-be answered still questions for theTexas Education Commissioner and K-12 School system educators throughout the state.

  • Why do we have so many conflicts with the 15% rule in the first place?
  • Who is looking into the nearly 100 out of the 1200 independent school systems that did not request a deferral of the 15% ruling during the first year of implementation, and how are these school system fairing? What led them to reject the deferral?
  • What does all the conflict with the 15% ruling really reveal about the Texas Educational System?

In summary, I am left with wonderments of the potential of the new state of Texas assessment and accountability system.  One can not help but notice how that the system is being altered from what its planners originally intended.  This is not to say adjustments are not needed, but the goal is to improve student achievement, all of these backtrackings no the 15% rule could be the proverbial beginning of the end. This end is the political dismantling of a once-promising state assessment and accountability system that supports more rigor and better student preparedness for their post-secondary endeavors.  Perhaps we are simply witnessing an assessment accountability system deferred.