An Open Letter to Texas Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath Re: Recent Letter to School Administrators

Dear Mr. Morath,

Tuesday, March 29, 2016: This was the first day of your first year administering Texas’ core accountability measure, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly known as STAAR. It was also the day that a series of failures with STAAR began. 

Computer glitches that day caused many testing irregularities such as student answers disappearing during breaks and Special Education students being trapped unintentionally in an all-day exam while district personnel scrambled for timely guidance from your agency and new vendor, Educational Testing Service.

Over the days and weeks since then, the failures have mounted. We have seen hundreds of thousands of tests being re-scored due to massive errors caught by cautious school districts. Now, we have reports that physical answer sheets from students across the state are lost. Superintendents, desperately concerned about their schools being judged on such a flawed system, wrote you letters of concern and at least one has filed an administrative complaint.

Your assessment and promise.

In a live-streamed interview with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune on May 17th, you stated,

“We're committed to ensuring that no students are negatively affected by the STAAR results that might be problematic, and that no districts are negatively affected.” 

Mr. Smith asked you how many students have been impacted, and you answered,

“It's about 14,000 out of the two and a half million that took an assessment. Yeah.”

You went on to explain why these failures would not affect districts, because you would only count the scores if they helped districts—referring to your explanation as “inside baseball” as if the public wouldn’t understand why your agency’s plan to use some scores and not others based on a desired outcome was the right statistical approach to solving the problem.

Failure upon failure has been met with these same apologies, apologies qualified by your assurance that everything was under control and that the failures affected only a small number of students. 

Breaking news.

Then, [BREAKING] news hits social media this past Friday evening. Without alerting the press, you posted a letter to school officials canceling the final round of STAAR for every 5th & 8th grade student. You also directed that—statewide—no 5th or 8th grade student failing any math or reading STAAR at any time this year be automatically retained or required to take any state-mandated instruction like summer school. This was such big news that it appears to have crashed your agency’s website for five hours in the middle of a Friday night.

This was an unprecedented decision in our state where the high-stakes accountability movement was born and one that I am sure you did not take lightly. The news that your agency would effectively ignore any STAAR scores for these grades with respect to student consequences meant the effective scrapping of millions of dollars of expense, millions of hours of test preparation and countless hours of student stress.

It was big news, but your agency posted the letter at the last possible hour of the work week (timestamped at 5:33pm on Friday, June 10). Your calculated effort to minimize news coverage left schools and parents in a lurch. All over the state, districts scrambled to make mid-weekend decisions on whether to either keep or cancel their summer school programs—many already underway with students due to report on Monday. Your announcement directed only to administrators caused parents to wonder whether this meant that the threats of retention, regularly made by schools and couched in “we’re sorry, but it’s state policy” language, were no longer valid and that they could now make a voluntary decision about their children attending summer school. After all, parents just agreed to enroll their children a matter of days ago under substantially different rules.

While this is a significant victory for students in these grades and a win for responsible school districts looking for ways to make student-centered decisions, your effective admission that STAAR scores are unfit for decision-making while not disclosing any specifics to the public or directing that scores actually be removed from student records leaves a significant gap in transparency for the public. 

Furthermore, it leaves school districts directionless about the use of these scores in other ways such as with the annual accountability ratings given by your agency or how they should proceed with including them in teacher and principal evaluations.

Questions.

Given this gap, I ask that you answer the following questions for parents, students and educators around the state:

  1. What were the circumstances—the specific failures and projected impacts of those failures—that led you to detach student consequences from the STAAR and cancel its last administration? 
  2. Why do you believe these scores should be left in student academic records?
  3. How do these STAAR failures differ for Grades 5 and 8 versus those in Grades 3, 4, 6, and 7?
  4. Do you plan to use these scores—which you have deemed unusable for promotion decisions and have decided not to collect during a third administration—for any other purposes such as school accountability?
  5. If so, why are those uses valid while the others are not? How could results collected this year in such a different fashion (two administrations versus three or with so many scores missing) be comparable to another year, especially when several accountability measures compare one year to another? 
  6. Finally, what is the agency’s recommendation to school districts regarding the validity of these scores in connection with personnel evaluations? 

All of these questions highlight the serious problems with throwing out the consequences for students while not throwing out the scores. Teacher jobs are at stake. School closures are at stake. The assignment of millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake. Too much is at stake to have a failing assessment system be applied haphazardly.

You owe the people of Texas a transparent accounting of these problems as well as the reasoning behind changes in policy. If you cannot answer these questions, you must throw out ALL the scores, order them expunged from student records, and assure they are not used for any decision-making. Anywhere. Period. This is the only way the public can be sure that you have kept your promise that no negative consequences will come from invalid scores.

In conclusion.

I am a public school parent, and I do want accountability for our schools. What makes a good school is so much more complex than what any single assessment can determine, and I look forward to the day when this is recognized by the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Legislature. Until then, thousands of concerned parents like myself along with educators fighting for authentic instruction will work to mitigate the damage done by a flawed assessment system.

Please do not hide from your own accountability

I look forward to your response. Our schools and our children are counting on your answers.

Sincerely,

Ben Becker

Chairperson, The Committee to Stop STAAR

Houston, Texas

June 13, 2016

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