Nation’s 7th Largest School District Threatens Moms Over Test ‘Opt-Outs’, Calls Threat a Typo

Houston Independent School District

It was a huge blunder for the Houston Independent School District (ISD), the seventh largest district in the nation and the largest in Texas when an adminstrator’s letter threatened parents that their children would face summer school if they opted out of the annual state-mandated State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam. The next day, that threat was downgraded to an editing error.

On April 23, a letter to parents from Dan Gohl in the district’s academics department cautioned that “not participating in the assessments has negative consequences for the student, the school, and the district.”

He admonished that refusing to take the STAAR was non-negotiable and cited the Texas Education Code 26.010 Exemption from Instruction which states, a “parent is not entitled to remove the parent’s child from a class or other school activity to avoid a test.”

He also referenced an earlier Attorney General ruling in which “test” and “assessment” were used interchangeably to mean the same thing to underscore his point about skipping the STAAR. The letter insisted that 95 percent of students had to take the test or the district would fail.

Theoretically, such a failure would put Houston ISD’s funding in jeopardy. The letter warned that students who did not take the test or the make-up would not automatically be promoted to the next grade level.

“They will be scheduled for a Grade Level Placement Committee hearing prior to the start of summer school. In this case, students will be required to attend summer school and will be reevaluated by the Grade Placement Committee prior to the end of summer school for a determination of promotion or retention.”

On April 24, that story changed. The Houston Chronicle reported that Houston ISD officials suddenly chalked up the letter’s threats of forced summer school for students who did not take the STAAR to an editing mistake.

District spokeswoman Holly Huffman softened up more words. She told the Chronicle that students who missed the exams “may” have to take classes over the summer. It was now all dependent upon the advice of individual school committees.

While Huffman was massaging the diction, former Houston ISD administrator Ruth Kravetz was overseeing damage control, slamming the letter as an “intimidation tactic” and insisting it was not meant to be “heavy-handed” but to make “the process and potential ramifications clear.”

She also divulged that about 40 students in the district have “intentionally skipped the state math test and 15 avoided the reading one.”

Texas law states that students in fifth and eighth grades must pass the state’s exams in reading and math to be promoted automatically to the next grade level. This same law has a provision that a student who fails the exams may appeal to a placement committee, made up of the parent, the principal and the teacher. The group can decide unanimously to promote the child.

The Houston ISD board offered up a few get out of STAAR cards to the Houston Press including late morning arrival that would circumvent the testing time window. They also served up keeping the child home, claiming that parents could “submit a handwritten note upon returning to school indicating that the child was out sick for up to 5 consecutive days without a doctor’s note” and it would count as an excused absence. “Your child’s test is not scored,” they said.

However, Breitbart Texas has reported that state truancy laws have not yet been amended. Currently, even an unexcused absence of three or more days or parts of days in a four week period can result in juvenile Class C misdemeanor charges, a $500 fine and a conviction that can mar a minor’s records. It can also land parents with a Contributing to Non-Attendence violation.

Nationwide, more families are rejecting over-use of standardized testing that took flight under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Those who protest in Common Core states are battling the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing conglomerates. The STAAR gets a lot of flack for being a Pearson product, the same provider of high-stakes Common Core assessments.

STAAR test results are used to satisfy NCLB’s Adequate Year Progress (AYP) requirement. The waiver may have alleviated the 100 percent reading and math proficiency mandate for students but it also created additional layers of red tape in accountability reporting systems, which Breitbart Texas reported.

Houston ISD’s accountability policies are trickier, too, since the district answers to two masters — the state and the feds. In 2013, they applied for the same federal grant competition as in the Common Core states — Race to the Top (RTTT), through a “district” option — RTT-D. This allowed school districts that did not participate in the federal mandate the opportunity to vie for the same Obama administration grant cash regardless of whether or not they were a part of the Common Core.  Houston ISD was awarded $30 million.

Among the stipulations, were the adoption of standards and assessments that were “college and career ready, and accountability through measurable data systems.” It also made the district more accountable to their benefactor, the US Department of Education (USDE).

Houston ISD also uses the STAAR to satisfy its teacher evaluation requirements.  Last year, district teachers balked over being held to account over the federal prize money. Like every other district, the STAAR is tied the state’s 2013 rendition of College and Career Readiness Standards (House Bill 5) and the NCLB waiver.

Currently, that waiver is in limbo. State Education Commissioner Michael Williams and US Education Secretary Arne Duncan have not seen eye-to-eye on teacher evaluation accountability systems at a time when the fate of the federal NCLB Act is also uncertain. Presently, it sits in Congress in its dubious third incarnation, The Every Child Succeeds Act, which may roll back the testing frenzy yet do nothing to end the Common Core or tame the cradle-to-career mania.

Ironically, Houston ISD was one of 445 districts that jumped onto the high-stakes testing opt-out bandwagon in 2012, although these steps they since have taken only weave them in more closely with the feds.

Long before Texas pursued its 2013 NCLB waiver, the state ranked third in the nation for amassing federal education dollars in both aid and contracts worth more than $1.2 trillion between 2000-06.

Despite the big hub-bub over the Houston ISD letter, Texas Education Agency (TEA) spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told the Houston Chronicle that because of the state’s temporary NCLB waiver from those standards, the testing participation rate is not a factor this year, even though she also validated that there was no exit from the exam. Given the sweeping changes to the state’s math curriculum standards, Williams exempted it from the state’s education rating system for the 2014-15 school year.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.