The Texas Legislature has just completed its 85th regular session, although there is what should be a short special session looming to mop up a few items left pending. On several levels this was a very confusing session, particularly for public education issues, which are my primary focus. And as I take the long view, it strikes me that in many ways we are at an important inflection point in public education in Texas.
We are at the point where for a variety of reasons I believe it has become necessary for us to restore and rebuild the consensus among Texans and particularly our opinion leaders that for over 25 years made Texas the national leader in standards and accountability-based education reform. That leadership provided the model for the country and achieved considerable success, but it has become clear over the past several years that the consensus on which it was based has become fractured.
We need to get it back, because our future prosperity depends on it and our kids deserve better. We owe all of them the high quality seats that will provide the opportunity for the best education available. This is the unfinished business of the civil rights revolution of the 21st century.
When Texas put into place the most rigorous education accountability system in the country in 2009, we thought we were at the culmination of a journey of over 20 years toward a Texas high school diploma that truly represents post-secondary readiness, but somehow we lost our courage and the pushback to that enhanced rigor has been relentless, resulting in a lowering of expectations and a gutting of the standards. Here was the recent mid-session message on this point from Courtney Boswell, Executive Director of Texas Aspires:
Texas, we’ve lost our way. We’ve turned away from continuous improvement. We’ve turned away from civil rights in education. We’ve turned away from making the tough decisions Texas children rely on us to make.
Instead of focusing our attention on improving our schools, we’ve resorted to masking true performance by trying to water down accountability indicators. Instead of creating environments where all students regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or zip code can thrive, we’ve made excuses for their struggles. Instead of setting high expectations for student learning and holding students and educators responsible for meeting or exceeding them, we’ve eased graduation standards and made them optional.
Texas was once a national leader in making radical changes to our education system that proved effective for our students. We’re now a national leader in removing them, and our students stand to lose the most.
Rather than using the tools at their disposal to defend measures that move the Lone Star State forward, dozens of legislators have used the power of rhetoric to paint a bleak picture of the state of our schools in order to dismantle accountability. Unfortunately, a crisis is coming if Texans don’t take action and reverse this trend.
And the results of the abandonment of this historic commitment are already in evidence. Based on student achievement data released by the Texas Education Agency through 2015, the college readiness of Texas high school graduates has decreased dramatically. Texas began tracking college readiness in 2006 based on readiness for post-secondary success as measured by state assessments and scores on the SAT and ACT tests and it rose every year, reaching a peak in 2014. Then it fell significantly in 2015 across all demographic groups. For the quarter of students from the most affluent schools it fell from 71% to 55% and from the quarter of students from the poorest schools it fell from 42% to 13%, in both cases wiping out ten years of progress.
You might ask, what changed? And my answer, though not scientific (and I’m certainly open to other suggestions), is that the only material change was the watering down of expectations embodied in the standards and assessment system beginning in 2010 with the relentless campaign against standardized testing and continuing through the recent legislative session.
This trend has already done great damage to the future of thousands of Texas kids and threatens many more if we cannot come to a new consensus on the accountability for and measurement of student achievement in Texas, which after all should be the organizing principle of the public schools.