Michael Williams Tries to Soothe the Masses at School Administrators’ Conference

Michael Williams Tries to Soothe the Masses at School Administrators’ Conference

For the growing number of Texans demanding less standardized testing in our schools, we’ve reached an important anniversary.

It was January 31, 2012 when then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott took the stage before a Texas Association of School Administrators conference, and uttered the words that galvanized the movement. Standardized testing as practiced in Texas schools, he said, had become a “perversion of its original intent.”

Since then, more than 800 districts have signed onto anti-testing resolutions, calling for major reforms from the Legislature. Conservative, suburban parents have joined a movement that, for years, focused around minority and low-income schools. Nonetheless, Texas continued rolling out the new STAAR exams, testing and retesting students whose scores bumped them off the graduation track.

So on Tuesday, when new Education Commissioner Michael Williams stepped onto the same stage as Scott occupied a year ago, he had a hard act to follow.

Williams, the consummate showman, stepped lightly to the stage in a navy suit and matching polka dotted bow tie. He began upbeat, praising Texas’ graduation rates, falling drop-out rates and scores on national tests. But as for the fiery talk of broad test reform that the crowd enjoyed last year, there would be no encore.

“We heard you. And because we heard you, we’re redesigning the accountability system,” he said. He’s already unveiled his proposals for a redesign that largely leaves the testing program in place, and he said today he’s gotten 1,600 comments already.

“To back away from it now, in my humble opinion, does nothing more than put at great risk the futures of those young children,” he said. “I’m gonna ask to pump our brakes and slow our roll, and let’s get through this transition period.”

Williams announced encouraging new STAAR results from last year—cumulative passing rates, after two rounds of retakes, that showed high schoolers passing algebra, english and biology at rates of 70 percent or more. He didn’t need to remind the audience about how low a “passing” score was set on some tests last year.

The scene was a fair summation of how last year’s anti-testing fury has softened with age, spun into high-level but modest policy recommendations that now have as much to do with vocational education as testing.

So instead of dwelling on tests, Williams tried to change the conversation. He told the crowd he was most concerned with the rate of out-of-school suspensions in some school districts, particularly for black and Latino students.

“I want you to be able to make sure there’s order in the classroom,” he said. “But my friends, if it is indeed true that the most significant, impactful factor in a youngster’s learning experience is the teacher in front of them, then the teacher has to be in front of them to get instruction.”

Williams said he’s going to seek the power to set minimum learning standards for students in suspension, and authority to hold hearings in districts where he sees “chronic suspension.

At the end of his talk, Williams took questions from the audience. Through the bright stage lights, he said he couldn’t see who was asking the questions, so he paced the stage instead, as the voices of school administrators came down from the speakers.

As Williams paced, one man asked if he would show his courage by joining school leaders in asking the Legislature to restore the $5 billion cut from the public education budget last session. The question drew a long round of applause that grew into a standing ovation from the crowd—after which Williams repeated what he told the Legislature last week.

He said it’s best to wait until after the school finance trial and its appeals wrap up, before making any big changes to the funding. “At that point in time, I believe there’s going to be a very big conversation, which I hope we’re a part of, about this $5 billion, or whether it’s even more than that,” he said. “I can assure I’m going to be in the middle of that.”

Small consolation to school leaders who are dealing with budget shortfalls in the current school year, when any new money from a court ruling is one or two years away, but there it is.

“I have never been afraid,” Williams said. “We just have to do it at the right time.”

The audience rises in applause after a man in the audience asks Williams to join in asking the Legislature to restore $5 billion in school funding cut last session.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks to the Texas Association of School Administrators Tuesday.  Patrick Michels
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