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Education’s Projected Reality

Texas Education Agency officials came under attack for methods of testing and rating districts
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I know it may seem like I have a pretty cushy job at the Observer. After all, I’m not talking to death row prisoners like Dave or covering human rights abuses on the border like Melissa. Even Forrest has to go hang out at those smelly chicken farms to report on environmental abuse. I, on the other hand, mostly risk death by boredom. (Seriously, you have no idea how long some of those speeches are.)

But on occasion, I have to endure one of the hardest things a person can survive—watching a perfectly nice agency staffer get torn to shreds by a legislator. Your stomach churns, and, if it’s especially bad, the awkwardness of the situation encompasses the whole room. It’s as if you yourself are standing in front of a committee, unable to account for the agency’s policies. By the time it’s all over, you’ve promised yourself that you’ll hug the next bureaucrat you see.

I have a feeling those of folks going to education-themed committee hearings are going to be promising a lot hugs. A few weeks ago, the Houston Chronicle reported the state Education Agency had lowered the number of questions students had to get right to pass the high-stakes TAKS test. Shortly after, the Chronicle pointed out more news—even those students who failed the TAKS can be counted as passing if they’re projected to pass in the next three years.

It’s not exactly an common-sense system, and certainly not the easiest one to defend under interrogation. Rep. Scott Hochberg, the chair of the appropriations subcommittee handling education funding, was definitely in Perry Mason mode as he laid into Education Agency staffers at a Tuesday meeting of his subcommittee.

Perhaps I should explain something about ol’ Hochberg. If you think of the legislature as full of former quarterbacks and cheerleaders, Hochberg would be king of the AV Club. He’s legislature’s number one nerd. He’s one of only a handful of people who actually understands how school funding works in this state, and he’s always woefully well prepared. When I once asked a lobbyist whose advice Hochberg took, he laughed. “Hochberg listens to Hochberg,” he had said with a shrug.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise that our nerdy chair already had his homework done. He started with the lowered number of questions. He was relatively calm as he pointed to the very low passing standards the state’s eighth grade social studies test. “If my math is right,” he said, “a student who knows 12 of those question and bubbles in A on the rest stands a pretty good chance of getting the 21 that they need [out of 48.]” Cue silence.

He continued: “Where and how is it appropriate to ever need to know only 12 questions or even only 21 questions out of 48 to say you have met our standard for social studies?”

Things heated up by the time he got to the projection measures. He made Criss Cloudt, the agency’s associate commissioner on assessment, walk the committee through the calculators. (And remember, all but one of the school districts to have newly achieve the agency’s “exemplary” rating did so thanks to this calculator.) He pointed to examples in which a student passing in two subject areas could literally get a zero in the third and still be projected to pass.

“We had a discussion before about when it’s crazy,” he said, “and y’all agreed that there had to be a point where it’s crazy.”

Guess where that point is for Hochberg.

And he’s not the only one. Appropriations chair Jim Pitts, a Republican, sat with a serious look through much of the meeting as Hochberg questioned the agency reps and subcommittee member (and Republican) Jimmie Don Aycock asked several questions in line with Hochberg. I spoke with Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal—also a member of the subcommittee—shortly after news broke on the lowered standards. “I think it’s important to just get some perspective on how arbitrary the larger system is,” he said. The projection measures are “just crazy.”

It didn’t help that the commissioner on education, Robert Scott, didn’t make the meeting. Hochberg said he offered to teleconference with Scott when it looked like the commissioner would be in Washington, and adjusted the meeting to fit into Scott’s schedule. Hochberg wasn’t exactly quiet about his frustration.

“Don’t go away Adam, unless you’re looking under the table for the commissioner,” Hochberg told Deputy Commissioner Adam Jones. I definitely squirmed around in my seat.

 

Over at the Statesman, Kate Alexander offers another nice summary of the meeting. Hers doesn’t explain the horrors we all felt watching the interrogation unfold, but then again, Statesman readers may not be ready for that level of truth.