Hate the STAAR? Fine, but what’s the best replacement?

Students take the STAAR test at East View High School in Georgetown on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Students take the STAAR test at East View High School in Georgetown on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

For many Texans, the state’s current standardized test – STAAR – represents everything that is wrong with public education. The annual assessments for grades 3 thru 12 have been blamed for everything from killing teacher innovation in the classroom, creating unnecessary stress for students while failing to produce more prepared graduates.

So, State Board of Education chairwoman Donna Bahorich is correct to restart the state’s conversation with a series of public forums to help shape what the next phase of accountability testing should look like. Bahorich is gathering public input for the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, created by the Texas Legislature last session to help determine the state’s next steps in school accountability.

As reported by American-Statesman’s Julie Chang last weekend, the ideas from advocates and parents are wide-ranging, including: winnowing down state standards that drive the current test, removing the requirement that students pass to graduation, online testing and replacing high school student’s end of course exams with the SAT or ACT.

But before choosing a new testing regime, educators, policymakers, business leaders and parents need to figure out what exactly the state is testing for. After all, inappropriate use of a single test is what got public education into this accountability mess in the first place.

Seriously, what do we really want the test to tell us?

Are we checking to make sure that an individual student makes progress so they will be ready to enter the workforce or college upon graduation? Are we trying to make sure that parents know which schools are meeting state standards? Are we looking to weed out teachers who do not cover the state’s required curriculum? Are we double checking that students have mastered specific skills and getting early intervention if they are not?

Each of those scenarios require a different kind of test. The inability to agree on a single measure has led to the proliferation of testing, consuming the academic calendar. And when you look at the charge to the new commission in House Bill 2804, it is clear that it has been tasked with accountability’s version of the kitchen sink.

That’s not to say that ideas such as substituting the ACT for end of year high school tests should be dismissed out of hand. There’s a lot to like about using a single, shorter test to determine college or career readiness — which in the end is what colleges and employers really care about. However, end of year tests measure mastery — did the student learn specific material and skills that should have been taught by the teacher – not readiness.

So using the ACT, or a test like it as a replacement test for accountability, which has recently been allowed by the latest federal education standards, would make plans by districts like Austin to use test scores as part of teacher evaluations inappropriate. The broader testing criteria makes it even harder than it already is to attribute a student’s success to a single teacher. It is also an inadequate diagnostic tool to determine what specific skills a student might need to bone up on to improve performance.

The ACT (or SAT) may be more familiar than the current array of alphabet soup test names, however even the old standbys have their critics. Income and parental education are huge predictors of how a student will perform, which throws into question whether the assessments measure a family’s financial resources or a student’s ability to perform.

And lastly, switching to the ACT readiness standard will do little to immediately relieve the sinking sense that Texas students are underachieving. In 2015, only 41 percent of Texas graduates took the test. Of those students 59 percent met the English readiness benchmark and less than 45 percent passed the reading, math or science thresholds.

The prediction is that if we expanded the test to include all students, even those who are not college bound, the passing rates would be much, much lower.

 

Support Reed Williams for Texas Senate District 24

State Senate 24 Republican candidate Reed Williams on Monday, February 1, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
State Senate 24 Republican candidate Reed Williams. PHOTOS BY DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Texas Senate District 24 seat once occupied by Troy Fraser is up for grabs. In June, the senator from Horseshoe Bay announced he would be stepping down after 19 years. Vying to replace him are six ready and capable Republican candidates.

As expected, the contenders agree on a variety of issues that would resonate with Republican party politics, including limiting government, opposing immigration and supporting anti-abortion policies. On the matter of Austin Energy, most of the candidates would support the deregulation of the city owned public utility provider, as did Fraser.

After taking a closer look at each candidate, we urge voters to choose Reed Williams in the March Republican primary race.

What sets Williams apart from the others is his elected office experience and willingness to look at a much broader picture, which would be an asset for constituents of this  solidly Republican district that stretches about 20,000 square miles, from Abilene to the northwest suburbs of Austin. Williams, a retired oil executive who now grows grapes for wineries,  amassed valuable experience on the issues of energy, water and budgetary planning during his six-year tenure as a San Antonio public servant. He spent four years as a councilman representing North Side and two years as a San Antonio Water System board trustee. Williams’ knowledge on of the issues that affect both urban and rural residents would make him  an effective voice for Senate District 24.

State Senate 24 Republican candidate Dawn Buckingham on Monday, February 1, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
State Senate 24 Republican candidate Dawn Buckingham.
State Senate 24 Republican candidate Ryan Downton on Monday, February 1, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
State Senate 24 Republican candidate Ryan Downton.

That said, this is a crowded race and Republican voters have a capable group of candidates from which to choose.

Also running are Dr. Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, Ryan Downton of Temple, Jon Cobb of Lakeway, State Rep. Susan King of Abilene and Dr. Brent Mayes of Fredericksburg.

Buckingham, an Austin ophthalmologist, served on the Lake Travis Independent School District’s board and as vice chair of the State Board of Educator Certification. Buckingham also served as a lieutenant governor appointee to the Sunset Advisory Commission in the past legislative session and has the backing of former Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Charles Schwertner.

Downton, a businessman and lawyer, ran for the 2012 Republican nomination for Texas House District 47.

Mayes is a small businessman and former radiologist. Cobb owns a small business.

State Senate 24 Republican candidate Jon Cobb on Monday, February 1, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
State Senate 24 Republican candidate Jon Cobb.
State Senate 24 Republican candidate Brent Mayes on Monday, February 1, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
State Senate 24 Republican candidate Brent Mayes.

Williams is not the only candidate in the group with experience in an elected role.  King — who did not accept our invitation for a meeting — has served five two-year terms in the Texas House. King, R-Abilene, suspended her House race to run for Fraser’s empty seat. In her tenure in the House, King has consistently championed conservative policies, especially with regard to immigration. Last session she authored a bill that would have pushed chronically ill immigrant children down on a growing waiting list for services through a state and federally funded program. The bill died in the Senate.

Never having held a legislative post shouldn’t slow down Williams. His knowledge of the issues facing District 24 and beyond will ease his transition into the Texas Legislature.

In San Antonio he earned a reputation as a strong unifying voice on the council. His colleagues and critics praise his ability to tackle complicated and controversial issues, including successfully taking on prominent issues like rate increases at CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System. Voters should take note of such experience.

The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Virginia “Jennie Lou” Leeder of Llano in November. Early voting begins Feb. 16.

Ann Kitchen recall petition bodes ill for Austin

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Welcome to “Groundhog Day,” Austin.

If the petition being circulated to oust Council Member Ann Kitchen has the required 4,811 signatures, Austin politics will likely become its own version of the cult classic movie. You know, where the character by Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again trying to get a different outcome.

Although exhausting, all turns out well for Murray. He, eventually, gets the girl and comes out on the other side a better person. For Austin, policy by petition and political harassment has ominous implications.

Of course, the power to recall elected representatives is an important tool as part of the checks and balances on local government. It prevents elected officials from being allowed to run amok until their term expires. However, it is a power best reserved for correcting incompetence, neglect of duties, corruption, misconduct — allowing the work of the city to continue rather than being derailed by poor or improper governance.

There are costs of course — financial and political — which is why it should only be pursued in extreme cases. The city moved its municipal election day to November in part to reduce expense and encourage greater voter participation. If the petition is submitted and certified before Feb. 19, an election will likely be called for May,

However valuable a recall election might be, it is the wrong tool for settling disagreements on policies. Although its unclear what group is behind the recall effort, it stands to reason that the petition is connected to Kitchen’s position on transportion networking companies such as Uber and Lyft.

From Statesman transportation columnist Ben Wear:

The petition, at the top, offers these grounds for sacking Kitchen, who, if not recalled, would face reelection in November 2018: “The reason for her recall is because she has purposefully hurt businesses that employ citizens of Austin.”

Pretty general. I’m guessing every council that has ever come along, in Austin or any other American city of any size, has passed ordinances that “hurt” businesses by imposing some sort of limitations on them for environmental, safety, road access, zoning or other reasons. Building codes harm businesses in this manner, as do parking requirements. Heck, any city fee on a business hurts it, and they are always done purposefully. Or should that be “purposely?” Maybe both.

Austin has always functioned best when stakeholders work together to reach consensus. This take no prisoners approach to government is much more akin to the state of affairs in Washington, D.C., where it seems to make perfect sense to vote more than 50 times to undo legislation to no effect. The method proposed by Austin4All, the nebulous group behind the Kitchen petition, is even worse, preferring to remove leaders they don’t like until they wear down the elected representative or get someone they like.

Austin has no shortage of contentious issues: environmental protection, affordable housing, development code rewrites, public safety, transportation. Resorting to a petition is a terrible way to write policy and an even worse way to choose leadership.

If it comes to a vote, hopefully Kitchen’s constituents in District 5 will take a stand and not allow her to be run out on a rail. I may not always agree with Kitchen, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to serve her term. There are plenty of ways to build consensus for change; a recall petition is not one of them.

Two hours of the ‘staid’ Republican campaign we once expected

Ted Cruz
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz answers a question during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

We saw in Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate the campaign we were meant to have before Donald Trump rode an escalator into the race and began sucking all the media oxygen and attention from everyone else. Without Trump’s tiresome Il Duce act taking center stage — call it entertaining if you must — I found the alternate campaign we glimpsed for two hours Thursday refreshing, even if it was “a staid, policy-heavy contest,” as The Associated Press described it in its coverage — a contest in which the other Republican candidates “strained to take advantage” of Trump’s absence.

Fox News hosted Thursday’s debate, and moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier did an excellent job. The two debates hosted by Fox News and as well as the two hosted by Fox Business News have been the best of the campaign. All four have been tightly controlled and have featured tough, fair, concise questions. Of course, one of those questions — about Trump’s many misogynist comments he has made over the years, asked in August by Kelly — is the reason Trump refused to participate in Thursday debate and instead held his own “special event” a few miles away. A snide statement released Wednesday by Fox only hardened Trump’s determination to skip Thursday’s debate.

Trump’s absence had to be acknowledged, of course, and Kelly opened the debate by asking Texas Sen. Ted Cruz about “the elephant not in the room tonight.” Cruz had a well-rehearsed zinger ready to go. “I’m a maniac,” he said, taking a stiff beat. “And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly.” And with that, “the Donald Trump portion” of the debate, as Cruz put it, was done, rarely to resurface.

OK, it turns out Cruz could have used Trump on Thursday. This was a point the American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove emphasized in an analysis previewing the debate. Without Trump to attack, Cruz lost a chance to recover some of the momentum in the polls he has lost the past couple of weeks. An average of polls conducted between Jan. 18 and Jan. 27 shows Cruz trailing Trump by 7 points, and fading. Then again, Cruz is still thought to have the best organization in Iowa and there remains doubt that Trump’s followers in Iowa are dedicated enough to leave their warm homes and caucus with strangers on Monday.

Trump’s absence allowed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Sen. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to move beyond their expected roles as sidemen to a Trump vs. Cruz match-up. (Yes, I did not mention Ben Carson. Why? Because a random, reasonably informed person could do as well as the good surgeon did, so out of his depth is he.) Placed on equal footing with Cruz on Thursday, each candidate did his best to show that he is the real alternative to Trump, not Cruz, who spent most of Thursday night underscoring why so many colleagues find him so generally unpleasant.

I would like to think that Trump’s petulant refusal to join a debate just because a tough question upset him will be seen in Iowa and elsewhere as cowardice and weakness, but it’s unlikely given that nothing Trump does seems to hurt him. The more bullying he is, the stronger he seems to get. And, of course, the national media remains infatuated with him. So it’s probably foolish to wonder whether Thursday’s debate, however “staid” it was, marks the point where the long-anticipated rally of the so-called Republican establishment finally begins.

If so, it’ll only be seen in retrospect, once actual votes are cast. And the casting of actual votes finally — mercifully — starts Monday in Iowa.

SXSW should do as Sundance did: Ask if the fest has become too big

In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)
In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)

When it comes to public events, is bigger always better? It’s a question that Robert Redford has pondered over with the growth of the Sundance Film Festival.

His recent reply to a question about the future of Sundance, an event he founded more than 40 years ago, made me wonder if SXSW organizers think about the mammoth size of their festival. If they don’t, perhaps they should.

When Sundance began in 1978, Redford wasn’t sure the idea would even work, much less balloon into one of the largest film festivals in the United States. But it did, weathering growing pains along the way. Now, organizers for that festival are at a crossroad.

“As (Sundance) grew, so did the crowds, so did the development in Park City. Well, at some point, if both those things continue to grow, they’re going to begin to choke each other,” Redford told the Associated Press.

Here, one of the most-respected organizers in the film-fest game, admitted he has stepped back and started to analyze the situation facing one of the most popular festivals in the world. It shouldn’t be far-fetched to expect other established festivals to do the same.

Yes, I get that comparing the size of Sundance and the size of SXSW is moot. They are two completely different animals, after all. An apples-to-apples comparison shouldn’t be attempted. Size, above all, is what separates the two.

Most significant is the difference between the sizes of the location and attendance of these festivals: Park City, Utah’s population is a little more than 8,000; Austin’s population is closer to 1 million. Attendance at each you ask? In 2015, Sundance had over 45,000 attendees. SXSW Music, Film and Interactive 2015 attendance was at 84,385; of those, 20,252 attended the Film Festival portion.

Like in most growth scenarios, troubles and challenges come regardless of the size of a city or town.

“I’m starting to hear some negative comments about how crowded it is and how difficult it is to get from venue to venue when there’s traffic and people in the streets and so forth,” Redford told the Associated Press. “We’re going to have to look at that.”

It’s no secret that similar negative observations have been pointed out about SXSW. Austin residents and festival attendees have been complaining for a few years now about public safety, traffic and the effect they have on the quality of a SXSW experience. Then, critics had more to make their case against SXSW growth after a tragic crash killed four people during SXSW in 2014. While enhancements to public safety measures have been made since the accident — measures applauded by the American-Statesman editorial board — it will be necessary for festival organizers to be more proactive in their planning to prevent more tragedies.

What started in 1987 as a stage to showcase independent musicians — adding film and interactive branches in 1994 — has exploded into a one Texas’ biggest Spring Break gatherings full of big names, big parties and bigger headaches for those who live and work in downtown where most of the official and unofficial SXSW gigs take place.

Despite Sundance and SXSW being two very distinct beasts, it’s not unreasonable to suggest SXSW organizers ask themselves how much more, if at all, the festival should be allowed to grow.

In Redford’s case, that has meant facing the growth issue head on and searching for solutions on how the Festival can evolve.

“You have a couple of choices. You can go hard and say we’re going to stop it. Say ‘that’s the end.’ Let it go. Let someone else do it,” he said. “Or, you say well, if you want to keep it going, we can’t keep it going the way things are.”

One of Redford’s idea is to break up the festival into sections and multiple dates throughout the year, instead of packing the entire lineup just 10 days. For example, the festival could screen narrative features in January, and documentaries a month later.

Change, understandably, is inevitable. Festivals should aspire to grow. But at some point, arguably, an event the size of a Sundance or a SXSW festival can become too big.  Hopefully, the thought does not elude our friends at SXSW.

 

 

$1,000 to fix a broken bone? Try $25,000

10557787_10153743513238617_3292451984978331063_oThe world of medical bills can be bewildering, even for those of us with good health insurance. The Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, has meant more people are covered in Texas than ever before, but it is not a stretch to say the billing is just as confusing, and depending on the size of your deductible and your paycheck, an unexpected medical expense can still be a substantial hit to the family’s pocketbook.

A story in today’s Business section cites a national study by Bankrate.com that 66 percent of Americans can cover a $500 crisis a car breakdown or a trip to the emergency room would wipe out nearly tw0-thirds of Americans’ savings. The statistic was not as startling as the estimated cost of treating a broken bone, which Bankrate put at about $1,000.

I know a little something about broken bones and hospital bills, because my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, have managed to have three between them in the last two years (jumping on the bed, bike accident, and falling off a chair.) The last of which happened on Christmas Day and ended in emergency orthopedic surgery. The bills are still coming in on that one, but the total if I were uninsured would be in excess of $25,000. By virtue of the fact that I have pretty reasonable insurance through the Statesman and the fact that my daughter had already maxed out her medical deductible earlier in the year, we will be on the hook for about $1,000 of that cost. We can afford to pay it, but others are not so fortunate.

For those Texans who fall in the Medicaid gap — those whose incomes are below the poverty level but are ineligible for Medicaid and do not qualify for the federal health insurance subsidies — $25,000 might as well be $250,000. That fact alone would explain why unpaid medical bills are considered the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy. Nationally, nearly 3 million people are in the coverage gap; a quarter of those live in Texas, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In my time on the editorial board, I’ve heard various groups attempt to explain that rising medical costs are due to a failure of families to research the costs or an inability to prioritize their spending. But when your child falls and her bone is unmistakably broken, there is no time to go online and compare costs for orthopedic surgery, there is no form to sign to require hospitals to use only “in-network” specialists, and I dare anyone to suggest that perhaps you cut back on the pain medication to cut costs. Saying “Nevermind, let’s not fix this arm today” is not an option.

With the deadline for signing up for health insurance on the federal exchange on Sunday, those who qualify for ACA should absolutely take advantage of it — regardless of how young or healthy you may be. A single, freak accident or unexpected medical diagnosis can be a financial catastrophe.

Republicans in Congress have spent years trying to repeal a law that is needed for American families, although currently imperfect. A family should not have to take on the equivalent of a car loan to fix an 8-year-old’s broken arm.