Monday, November 24th, 2014
Half-True
Isaac
Pending a federal waiver, the 2013 Legislature "eliminated the overtesting of students in grades 3-8 by decreasing the number of tests from 17 to 8."

Jason Isaac on Thursday, August 29th, 2013 in a published commentary

Legislator's claim overstates sought reduction in tests for elementary and middle school students

Great news for students, state Rep. Jason Isaac said in a commentary describing education-related actions by the 2013 Texas Legislature.

Mandated high school end-of-course exams were cut from 15 to five, Isaac wrote. We knew that.

But the Dripping Springs Republican celebrated more reductions, writing: "We also eliminated the overtesting of students in grades 3-8 by decreasing the number of tests from 17 to 8."

Isaac added that House Bill 866 eliminated "some of the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) testing requirements for students who meet certain performance thresholds." Isaac then mentioned the approved measure also would give charter schools more testing discretion. "However," he wrote, "because of federal mandates, the state must seek and be granted a waiver from the federal government in order for these changes to take place."

A former Democratic state Senate candidate, Kathi Thomas, asked us to review the proclaimed 17-to-8 reduction. She said she saw Isaac's article in the Aug. 29, 2013, Dripping Springs News-Dispatch.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told us by email that House Bill 866, which was signed into law on June 14, 2013, "would reduce some testing" if the described waiver won federal approval. Another spokeswoman, DeEtta Culbertson, told us by email that the intended cut in tests--from 17 to 11, not 8--would apply only to students who performed well on such exams.

Ratcliffe said a waiver was needed because the change in Texas law conflicted with federal requirements set in place by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, "which requires us to test students in reading and math every year for grades 3-8, we have had to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver. That waiver is still pending."

Her response came a few days before the TEA announced Sept. 9, 2013, that the federal department had turned thumbs down on granting the waiver.

Previously, in a July 19, 2013, press release, the state education agencyhad announced that Michael Williams, the Texas education commissioner, had sought clarification from the U.S. Department of Education per its authority to waive reading and math tests of students in grades 3-8 as required under the federal law. The agency had said then that under HB 866, a federal "waiver must be secured to reduce or eliminate assessment requirements for certain students at the elementary and middle school grade levels."

"Should the federal government determine that relevant provisions of federal law may be waived and ultimately grant a waiver request," the press release said, "potential changes would include assessments for math in grades 3, 5 and 8; and reading in grades 3, 5 and 8. Current federal law requires testing for math and reading for all students in grades 3 through 8."

Students who performed well on the tests would be freed "to focus their time and energy on learning new material and not focusing every year on a test where there is a high likelihood that they would demonstrate success," Williams said in a letter to Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary.

If the federal government were to grant the waiver, according to a May 1, 2013, analysis of the state law by the non-partisan House Research Organization, students in grades 3-8 who met certain performance thresholds would not be required to take some STAAR exams.

The analysis said supporters of the measure predicted high-performing students could go from having 17 STAAR exams to facing as few as eight.

Not quite, according to TEA’s Culbertson, who told us that if the waiver were granted, students in grades 3-8 would still be required to take 11 tests and students who did not score highly enough would face additional exams.

Culbertson listed the 11 STAARs required of all students under the 2013 law as reading and math tests in grades 3, 5 and 8; writing in grades 4 and 7; science in grades 5 and 8; and social studies in grade 8. Culbertson said that students who either fail to score well enough on a test or who attend school in districts choosing to give the exams to every student could be subject to reading and math STAARs in grades 4, 6 and 7.

Isaac’s chief of staff, Ellen Troxclair, pointed out by email that while Isaac’s column explicitly said lawmakers had cut required tests in grades 3-8 from 17 to 8, it also mentioned students needing to meet performance thresholds and that the need for a waiver. "The fact remains that had the waiver been granted, the bill would have significantly reduced the number of tests for many students," she wrote.

We noticed, finally, that Isaac’s commentary was published in the newspaper with the relevant test-cut sentences taking up two paragraphs, effectively distancing his declaration that mandated tests were cut from 17 to 8 from some of his caveats. Troxclair sent us the text of what she described as his original commentary as submitted and showing all the test-cut information in one paragraph. In contrast, Dale Roberson, publisher of the News-Dispatch, told us by phone that the Isaac commentary arrived at the paper as one giant block of copy. He said he broke the text into readable paragraphs before publication.

Our ruling

Isaac declared that lawmakers reduced state tests in grades 3-8 from 17 to 8, pending a federal waiver.

Under the change in law, though, only well-performing Texas students would have faced fewer tests and even they would still have faced at least 11 exams, not 8. The approved measure left students not fulfilling performance expectations subject to 17 tests.

In his commentary, Isaac waved at the need for the waiver and that students scoring well would be affected, but he mentioned these elements only after asserting that the tests were cut--period. Presenting the conditions up front would have made the claim more accurate.

We rate this statement, which overstates the reduced number of tests and risks the misimpression that every student would see relief, as Half True.

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HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

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