AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas House draft budget that would pull funding from statewide standardized tests likely won't be approved, but it's the first time in recent memory lawmakers have tried such a move — and it may even violate federal rules if it ever were to become law.
The proposal also foretells a larger legislative debate brewing on the overall importance of testing in Texas schools.
"I think legislators and the public want to have a broad discussion about testing and this one way to force it," Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said Tuesday.
The proposed 2014-15 House budget contains nothing but zeros for the standardized test known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. It is designed to be more difficult than previous tests, which has caused uproar in some educational circles since students began taking it last school year.
A preliminary Senate budget, however, lists about $94 million annually for testing.
The two proposals will be merged in coming months, and what the Legislature actually passes will look very different from what has been proposed. Still, Ratcliffe said Texas has been giving standardized tests since 1980, and she couldn't recall a time either chamber had made such a move, even symbolically.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams, the state's top public education official, was briefed on the budget proposals Tuesday but offered no immediate comment. Ratcliffe said, however, that halting exams could have implications for the federal school rating system since No Child Left Behind laws mandate testing in elementary, middle and high school.
"There are state and federal laws that require student testing," she said. "If there were no funding we would be in violation of those laws."
Some cheered the move, though, including parents' groups who claim students are being over-tested.
"One of the surest ways to assure there will be a meaningful discussion of the testing is to withhold the funding until some of the sticker parts get addressed," said Lorie Barzano of Strengthen Austin Urban Schools and the Parents Across America network.
The defunding proposal likely is the opening salvo for an issue that may dominate the legislative session. Addressing the House on the opening day of session last week, Speaker Joe Straus said, "to parents and educators concerned about excessive testing — the Texas House has heard you."
"We will continue to hold our schools accountable," Straus said. "But we will also make our accountability and testing system more appropriate, more flexible and more reasonable."
Ratcliffe said the state signed a five-year contract with a private firm worth $468 million to administer STAAR, which last year replaced another standardized testing regime known as TAKS. She said the exam is rewritten every year, and the cost of that and printing costs mean the exam requires about $90 million annually to administer.
Barzano, whose daughter is a 10th grader in the Austin Independent School District, has testified before legislative committees about standardized testing having too many punitive consequences for students while weighing too heavily on districts' accountability ratings.
"Every dollar that goes to testing doesn't go to buying notebooks for the classroom, or paper for the students to use, or books for the library," Barzano said.
Bill Hammond is president of the powerful Texas Association of Business, which has been a vocal supporter of STAAR but also recently recommended reducing the number of tests students are required to take amid "legitimate concerns" including fears about over-testing in schools.
"Testing is very cost-effective" said Hammond, who called it the only way to ensure students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. But he acknowledged that the proposed defunding and other complaints were part of "a very real challenge to the testing regime in Texas."
Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat, said the proposal to strip testing funding left her scratching her head.
"We have expectations of students but then we don't fund them?" she asked. "We spent a lot of money on this test, and now we're not going to provide the money to actually give it?"