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By W. Gardner Selby January 31, 2018

Greg Abbott falls short on vow to spare teachers from teaching to many standardized tests

Greg Abbott accepted his party's 2014 nomination for governor by touting his compendium of goals, titled "Bicentennial Blueprint," which included a focus on freeing local schools from state mandates.

Through Abbott's term, we've been tracking and updating progress on his campaign promises through the PolitiFact Texas Abbott-O-Meter.

One promise came as Abbott told delegates to the Republican Party of Texas convention: "Teachers and parents know far better how to educate our children than do a bunch of bureaucrats in Austin or Washington D.C."

Abbott then vowed: "And my plan will stop forcing teachers to teach to so many standardized tests." He went on with a reference to 2036: "When Texas reaches its bicentennial, it won't matter how any child did on a four-hour test. What will matter is if our children are prepared for the challenges of tomorrow."

With Abbott seeking a second term in 2018, we looked into progress on his promise to stop forcing teachers to teach to so many standardized tests.

Starting in elementary school, Texas students take State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams, which are premised on gauging absorption of the state-set curriculum. To be specific, students face STAAR reading and math tests in grades three through eight; they take writing STAARs in grades four and seven, science tests in grades five and eight, a social studies test in grade eight--and end-of-course STAAR assessments must be hurdled in several high-school classes: English I, English II, Algebra I, biology and U.S. history.

Advocate: No lessening of pressure

We asked Abbott about movement toward fulfilling his vow to drive down pressure on teachers to teach to tests. We didn't hear back.

But Theresa Treviño, president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, offered detailed comments. TAMSA, which tracks legislative actions affecting student testing, says its mission is to improve public schools "through the use of meaningful and effective student assessments that allow for more productive classroom instruction and more efficient use of public funds."

In a letter sent by email, Treviño told us that since Abbott succeeded Gov. Rick Perry, who signed a 2013 measure into law that eliminated 10 state-imposed tests, "there has been no decrease in testing, and no visible decrease in the pressure on teachers or students." In fact, she wrote, Abbott killed a proposal that could have tamped down pressure.

Abbott's 2015 veto

Treviño noted that Abbott in 2015 vetoed Senate Bill 313, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, which called, in part, for the State Board of Education to review the state-set curriculum for certain subjects--focusing first on classes that end with students taking a state-required end-of-course exam. The measure directed the board to narrow what's academically required.

At issue, Treviño said, was teachers being required to cover more material than can realistically be presented in a year and students, in turn, confronting impractical breadth on STAAR exams. "A great deal of testimony was presented," Treviño said, "about how the standardized STAAR tests cover more curriculum than can be taught." She also said: "This certainly could have alleviated the pressure on teachers to guess what would be on a test and cram in more information than is feasible."

Abbott's June 2015 veto proclamation about the spurned legislation makes no mention, pro or con, about his concerns about shaving the curriculum to reflect what can reasonably be taught and tested. His message focuses on powers of the elected board, stating: "While Senate Bill 313 is intended to provide additional flexibility to school districts when purchasing classroom instructional materials, the bill potentially restricts the ability of the State Board of Education to address the needs of Texas classrooms. Portions of Senate Bill 313 may have merit, but serious concerns were raised about other parts of the bill. I look forward to working with the Legislature and other stakeholders to ensure this issue is vigorously evaluated before next session."

Speeding completion times

The same year, Abbott signed into law House Bill 743, by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, directing the Texas Education Agency to review the state's curriculum with an eye on revising certain STAAR exams so that most students in grades three through five complete them in 120 minutes with most students in grades six through eight finishing in 180 minutes.

To our inquiry, a TEA spokeswoman, Lauren Callahan, said by email the relevant tests were shortened as much as they could be "while still maintaining the required minimum standard of validity and reliability." Callahan also provided a March 2017 letter to school districts from Mike Morath, Abbott's appointed education commissioner, stating the STAAR had been shortened so the "vast majority of students" could finish within two hours in grades three through five and within three hours in grades six through eight.

Other failed measures

Our queries to associations that advocate for educators about Abbott's promise drew emails in reply from Mark Wiggins of the Association of Texas Professional Educators and Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association. Robison sent a document spelling out TSTA's reasons for seeing no movement toward the promise's fulfillment. Wiggins noted that measures to drive down the number of STAAR exams given to students died during the 2017 legislative session.

One of the proposals, House Bill 1333, included a fiscal note stating that limiting state-imposed tests to only those exams required by federal education laws would save the state $14.9 million a year though there'd be some offsetting costs.

Commissioner's role

Treviño expressed concern that Morath was showing signs of putting increased pressure on teachers to prep students for state tests.

Treviño said that in late 2017, Morath amended the agency's contract with a testing vendor, ETS, to add interim assessments in grades 3-8. "At this juncture," Treviño wrote, "the new tests are voluntary by districts, but the commissioner believes it would benefit districts to use the tests to ensure students are prepared for STAAR. In essence," she wrote, "this heightens the pressure and focus over more testing. If there were concomitant steps to reduce testing and high stakes, this could be a welcome change, but for now it is just more testing."

Callahan, asked to respond, confirmed by email that the state in spring 2018 would offer districts optional tests of student progress in English and math in grades three through eight. The idea, Callahan said, is to help teachers baseline student knowledge and also gauge improvement. "The agency's position is that the best preparation for a summative test is excellent teaching of the state standards," Callahan said, referring to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which spell out learning expectations for students by grade as set by the State Board of Education. "The interim assessments," Callahan wrote, "are part of an overall teacher toolkit that the commissioner is working to build to assist teachers with classroom resources that are instruction-focused with the intent of improving student outcomes."

Treviño went on to tell us that of most concern, Morath "has implemented a school accountability system that relies a disproportionate amount on the standardized testing." In grades three through eight, she said, grades bestowed on schools will be based on STAAR results alone and such grades for high schools will mostly be based on such results--all in accord with what lawmakers put into law in 2017 through HB 22, Callahan later noted by phone. Callahan cautioned too that the precise rules for the system remained under TEA development.

We generally asked Callahan if pressure on teachers to prepare students for standardized tests had been reduced of late. She replied by email that the state is "committed to supporting teachers in understanding growth in their students. We are piloting interim assessments this year, which will help teachers understand student progress towards mastery and help to inform teaching strategies. You can learn more about the interim assessment pilot here."

Treviño summarized her own take: "In conclusion, there has been no decrease in testing and no visible decrease in the pressure on teachers or students, since Gov. Abbott took office, either as a practical matter legislatively, or from a policy perspective."

We rate this previously unrated Abbott vow a PROMISE  BROKEN.

Promise Broken  – The promise has not been fulfilled.

UPDATE, 9:53 a.m. Feb. 1, 2018: This story was expanded to present the education agency's description of optional student tests to be piloted in grades three through eight starting in spring 2018. This addition didn't affect our rating of progress on this promise.

Our Sources

Texas Tribune video of Greg Abbott accepting the Republican nomination for governor of Texas, June 21, 2014 (testing promise at 26:05 mark)

Letter and emails responding to PolitiFact Texas, Theresa Treviño, president, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, Jan. 4-5 and 23-24, 2018

Legislative history and fiscal note, Senate Bill 313; legislative history, SB 149, 2015 Texas Legislature, Texas Legislature Online (accessed Jan. 4, 2018)

Veto proclamation by Gov. Greg Abbott for SB 313, entered in the Texas Senate Journal, 2015 Legislature, Texas Senate, June 20, 2015

Emails and phone interview,  Lauren Callahan, media relations and social media manager, Texas Education Agency, Jan. 25-26 and 29-31, 2018

Legislative history and fiscal note, House Bill 743, 2015 Texas Legislature, Texas Legislature Online (accessed Jan. 4, 2018)

Legislative history and fiscal note, House Bill 1333 and legislative history and fiscal note, HB 515, 2017 Texas Legislature, Texas Legislature Online (accessed Jan. 31, 2018)

Bill analysis, SB 463, 2017 Texas Legislature, Senate Research Center, June 6, 2017

Emails, Clay Robison, public affairs specialist, Texas State Teachers Association, Dec. 8, 2017

Email, Mark Wiggins, lobbyist, Association of Texas Professional Educators, Jan. 3, 2018

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