After questions were raised about language in a policy proposal that appears to call for the biannual testing of pre-kindergarten students, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s campaign is clarifying his early education plan, saying he is not calling for such tests.
The proposal — the first detailed glimpse at Abbott’s education policy — aims to increase accountability for pre-kindergarten programs in the state by tying their funding to academic outcomes. Announced a little more than a week ago, it asks Texas lawmakers to require school districts with such programs to “administer assessments at the beginning and end of the year.”
After Democrats and education advocates said Abbott's policy opened the door to standardized testing for pre-K students, the Abbott campaign said Tuesday the language in the attorney general's proposal would not amount to standardized exams for 4-year-olds.
“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” spokesman Matt Hirsch said in a statement.
Such a plan would probably be an unpopular move after a legislative session during which lawmakers in both parties scrambled to scale back state testing in response to widespread outcry from parents and educators. Abbott’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, highlighted the legislative changes during a rally Monday in Houston when she attacked Abbott over what she said was a new testing mandate.
“At a time when parents and teachers are calling out for relief from the burden of over-testing, Greg Abbott calls for more — subjecting 4-year-olds to another intrusive, state-mandated requirement,” said Davis, who opposes standardized tests for pre-K students.
Davis, who filibustered 2011 state budget cuts to public schools, has attempted to make her support of education a key factor in the governor’s race. Her own early education policy proposal, which the Abbott campaign has said is “short on substance and big on spending,” prioritizes increased access to full-day pre-K programs.
Abbott’s proposal would provide an additional $1,500 in state funding for each student enrolled in half-day pre-K programs — which the state currently funds for children who cannot speak English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families — if those programs meet state-set “gold standard” performance requirements. The biannual assessments are necessary, the proposal states, to provide the state with “data necessary to properly evaluate” whether districts would qualify as “gold standard.”
In the section describing how the state should monitor pre-K performance, the proposal cites a 2012 report published by the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit organization that develops and administers tests worldwide, that details policies related to “assessing preschoolers’ learning outcomes.” It explains that there are three methods of evaluating pre-K students: through “norm referenced standardized tests,” observations based on predetermined checklists and scales, and portfolios of children’s work. Most states use either the first or second approach, and Texas, it notes, is one of four states that do not require any kind of assessment for pre-K programs.
On Tuesday, Hirsch said that the assessment methods mentioned in the plan were “there for informational purposes only.”
“They are not part of Greg Abbott’s policy recommendations,” he said. “As the plan states, TEA should publish a list of approved assessments that districts may use.”
Under the plan, local school districts would chose from a list of approved assessments to be published by the Texas Education Agency, which it states should avoid “granting any one testing organization a monopoly.”
Asked whether the attorney general would call on the TEA to not include standardized testing as an approved assessment, Hirsch said Abbott "would discourage the use of standardized testing for pre-K students."
Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email Tuesday that the TEA had not had a chance to review the proposal.