Last week, new Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sat for a public interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. When Smith brought up the debate over transgender bathroom policies, Morath declined to comment, he said, because of his role in the state’s potential legal challenge to the federal government, and similarly demurred from commenting on the state’s school finance case. But on the controversy surrounding this year’s STAAR exam, Morath was more game to talk.
“I’m not being sued on that one yet,” he joked, to sardonic chuckles from the Austin Club crowd.
Well, about that….
On Monday morning, Round Rock attorney Scott Placek and Houston parent Ben Becker stood in the drizzle outside the Texas Education Agency’s headquarters north of the Capitol to tell reporters that they had, in fact, just sued Morath over this year’s STAAR exams. They’re asking the state not to use the scores for school ratings or student performance measures, and asking officials to “destroy all score reports” from this year’s test.
The TEA did not respond to the Observer’s request for comment as of publication.
This year’s tests are the first since the state switched vendors, from loathed publishing giant Pearson to the slightly-less-giant Educational Testing Service. The STAAR has been beset by troubles from the beginning, including deleted answers, misscored essays and a growing outcry from school superintendents who want the state to throw out this year’s scores for a litany of other reasons.
The lawsuit raises a whole new problem: It says TEA has willfully disregarded a 2015 law that required shortening the STAAR test to under two hours for elementary grades and under three hours for high schoolers. Last fall, then-Commissioner Michael Williams told superintendents that the current school year’s tests would be shorter, but not necessarily short enough to satisfy the law. Instead, the state would use the tests it had already lined up for the 2015-2016 year to gauge how much shorter tests need to be to fit the law.
In other words, Williams gave himself a one-year grace period. The only problem, according to the new suit, is that the law never allowed for one:
“Despite knowing that the assessments did not comply with statute, and despite a lead time of over nine months to comply, the TEA failed and refused to develop assessments that comply with the statute. As a result, approximately 2,000,000 Texas students were administered illegal assessments. The results of these illegal assessments are now being used to enact punitive measures against students, teachers and schools across the state.”
If TEA needed more time or money to design a shorter test, Placek told reporters, that’s something it should have raised at the Legislature last year. “TEA had a clear choice,” he said. “They could spend nine months designing an assessment that complied, or they could put their heads in the sand and hope that nobody noticed. Well, the parents noticed.”
Becker helped form a group called Stop the 2016 STAAR to sound the alarm — about the length of this year’s test, for starters, but more broadly, about how high-stakes testing has taken over school classrooms. Four parents are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Claudia de León, who has helped organize classes for Houston-area students opting out of the test, and mothers in Beaumont, Orange and Wimberley. To pay for the legal challenge, the group launched a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $20,000 so far.
Becker told reporters that he hopes school districts will join in, too. He said the sternly worded letters from the superintendents were encouraging, but that at this point, words are not enough. “We think that we’re entitled to the full protection of the law,” he said. “We plan to hold them accountable the way they hold us accountable, and hold our teachers and schools accountable.”