- By W. Gardner Selby American-Statesman Staff
Through Gov. Greg Abbott’s term, we’ve been tracking and updating progress on his campaign promises through the PolitiFact Texas Abbott-O-Meter.
One promise came as Abbott told delegates to the Republican Party of Texas convention: “Teachers and parents know far better how to educate our children than do a bunch of bureaucrats in Austin or Washington, D.C.”
Abbott then vowed, “And my plan will stop forcing teachers to teach to so many standardized tests.” He went on with a reference to 2036: “When Texas reaches its bicentennial, it won’t matter how any child did on a four-hour test. What will matter is if our children are prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.”
With Abbott seeking a second term this year, we looked into progress on his promise to stop forcing teachers to teach to so many standardized tests.
Starting in elementary school, Texas students take State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams, which are premised on gauging absorption of the state-set curriculum. To be specific, students face STAAR reading and math tests in grades three through eight; they take STAAR writing tests in grades four and seven, science tests in grades five and eight, a social studies test in eighth grade and end-of-course STAAR assessments in several high school classes: English I, English II, Algebra I, biology and U.S. history.
We asked Abbott about movement toward fulfilling his vow to drive down pressure on teachers to teach to tests. We didn’t hear back.
But Theresa Treviño, president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, offered detailed comments. The group, which tracks legislative actions affecting student testing, says its mission is to improve public schools “through the use of meaningful and effective student assessments that allow for more productive classroom instruction and more efficient use of public funds.”
Treviño told us that since Abbott succeeded Gov. Rick Perry, who signed into law a 2013 measure that eliminated 10 state-imposed tests, “there has been no decrease in testing and no visible decrease in the pressure on teachers or students.”
In fact, she wrote, Abbott killed a proposal that could have tamped down pressure.
Treviño noted that Abbott in 2015 vetoed Senate Bill 313, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, which called, in part, for the State Board of Education to review the state-set curriculum for certain subjects, focusing first on classes that end with students taking a state-required end-of-course exam. The measure directed the board to narrow what’s academically required.
At issue, Treviño said, was teachers being required to cover more material than realistically can be presented in a year and students, in turn, confronting impractical breadth on STAAR exams.
“A great deal of testimony was presented,” Treviño said, “about how the standardized STAAR tests cover more curriculum than can be taught.”
Abbott’s June 2015 veto proclamation about the spurned legislation makes no mention, pro or con, about his concerns on shaving the curriculum to reflect what can reasonably be taught and tested. His message focuses on powers of the elected board, stating: “While Senate Bill 313 is intended to provide additional flexibility to school districts when purchasing classroom instructional materials, the bill potentially restricts the ability of the State Board of Education to address the needs of Texas classrooms. Portions of Senate Bill 313 may have merit, but serious concerns were raised about other parts of the bill. I look forward to working with the Legislature and other stakeholders to ensure this issue is vigorously evaluated before next session.”
The same year, Abbott signed into law House Bill 743, by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, directing the Texas Education Agency to review the state’s curriculum with an eye on revising certain STAAR exams so that most students in grades three through five complete them in 120 minutes with most students in grades six through eight finishing in 180 minutes.
To our inquiry, a TEA spokeswoman, Lauren Callahan, said tests were shortened as much as they could be “while still maintaining the required minimum standard of validity and reliability.” Callahan also provided a March 2017 letter to school districts from Mike Morath, Abbott’s appointed education commissioner, stating that the STAAR had been shortened so the “vast majority of students” could finish within two hours in grades three through five and within three hours in grades six through eight.
Our queries to associations that advocate for educators about Abbott’s promise drew emails in reply from Mark Wiggins of the Association of Texas Professional Educators and Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association. Robison sent a document spelling out his association’s reasons for seeing no movement toward the promise’s fulfillment. Wiggins noted that measures to drive down the number of STAAR exams given to students died during the 2017 legislative session.
With no reduction in STAAR tests on his watch, we rate this Abbott vow a Promise Broken.