Can Scott Hochberg Cut Costs and Improve School Testing?

Rep. Scott Hochberg damned the way schools used the Texas Projection Measure. Now he's found a new use for the tool.

The Speaker’s Committee Room is odd territory in our state Capitol. It’s a small room connected to the chamber, mostly used for press conferences. Members of the public can only enter when the House isn’t in session, so there can be a bottleneck to get in when press conferences occur immediately after the session (a common time.) Because of the room’s size—it only holds three rows of chairs—events can look more crowded than they really are.

But even the room dimensions couldn’t save Tuesday’s press conference. “Think anyone else is coming?” Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, asked to no one in particular—or maybe to the scant three reporters milling around. He got started because “I don’t want to lose who I have.” It was too bad, since the bill was one of the first bipartisan efforts this session aimed at reforming the testing structure.

The bill, co-authored by Hochberg and freshman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, would exempt fourth graders from taking the state’s standardized tests if they passed their third grade tests by a large margin. Similarly, students in sixth and seventh grade wouldn’t have to take the tests if they passed by a healthy margin in fifth grade. While the measure wouldn’t save the state much money, it would save local districts a lot in test preparation, while putting a larger focus on those students who barely passed or failed their exams. Using giant posters of data, Hochberg pointed out that students who do well on the tests one year will very likely pass the following year.

“If we know these kids are going to pass, why are we giving them the test?” asked Hochberg, the House guru of all things education and data-related. Currently, he says, school districts can rely on their high achievers to boost test scores and inflate a school’s ratings. That allows the struggling kids to fall between the cracks. This bill would shift that emphasis, as schools would be judged based more heavily on how they equipped their low performers.

“It shines a laser beam on those kids who are below grade level,” Hochberg said.

Huberty, a conservative Republican who just left the Humble school board to come to the House, concurred. He argued the districts currently spend too much time and money on testing, particulary when those children who already did well one year will almost undoubtedly will pass again.

For proof, Hochberg—by far the nerdiest House member—turned to the numbers. Of those students who passed their reading and math assessments by a large margin in fourth grade, over 97 percent passed again in fifth grade. The numbers were even more compelling among middle schoolers. Over 98 percent of seventh graders who passed their assessments by a large margin in math and reading passed again in eighth grade. Meanwhile of those fourth graders who failed their tests, less than 40 percent passed the following year.

“It really sheds the light on this group of kids who are the ones who are likely to become dropouts as things go on,” Hochberg said told the handful of reporters.

Ironically, the all that data comes from the Texas Projection Measure, a tool Hochberg exocoriated last summer. The projection measure shows how likely students are to pass their assessments based on their past performances. The Texas Education Agency allowed schools to use the data count failing students as passing their tests if they were likely to pass sometime in the next three years. The problem was, TPM data was less accurate predicting low performers. In other words, it could tell that kids who passed one year were likely to pass the next, but when it came to predicting the paths of low-performers, the tool was far less reliable. That made Hochberg’s blood boil. In one of the most exciting hearings I’d heard, Hochberg took the entire agency to task, and arguing the system was “seriously flawed.”

Hochberg calls the new bill a “flip” on the TPM. He’s using the same data, but instead of letting schools claim credit for those who are failing, he eliminates the already-successful students from the pool. He says this system uses TPM where it’s at its strongest—predicting that high performers pass—and it only gives schools credit for students that actually pass. The new measure would presumably put a lot more pressure on schools to get their failing students up to grade level.  “This is not about rolling back our accountability system,” Hochberg argued. “I don’t see this inflating school district ratings.”

Even if the bill passes through the House and Senate, it still faces quite a few hurdles before it can get implemented. Since the measure would make low-performing students the main focus of a school’s rating, the State Board of Education would likely have to alter the current school rating standards to allow them a little more lenience for lower pass rates. It would also require a waiver from the feds, since the national No Child Left Behind law requires yearly testing. We’ve gotten waivers in the past, however.

Still, the bi-partisan nature of the bill is sure to make some people happy. And this is one of those cost-saving measures doesn’t just cut money, it aims at reforming and improving a system.

The discussion should be interesting to hear—assuming any one bothers to listen.

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Published at 10:51 pm CST
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