Updated, 6:47 p.m.:
Pressed to explain why the state had delayed a transition away from lower passing standards on state exams, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams told state lawmakers Tuesday that classroom instruction in the state had failed to meet the rigor demanded by the new tests.
"I’m not going to say it’s blame, but I am going to say that it is a function of instruction not rising to the level to provide that kind of learning to get to that place," he said at a Senate Education Committee hearing. "We have moved the bar significantly higher than it has ever been, and the system needs time to catch up."
Members of the committee questioned Williams on why the state had strayed from the original plan to phase in higher standards at the end of the second year of the new STAAR tests.
"At this rate we will never get to the level we were going to get to just two years ago," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat.
Lawmakers also expressed concern about the 16 percent of high school seniors who continued to fail the state exams they needed to graduate.
"After all of this, 16 percent of our students, after taking and taking and taking and retaking the same test over and over again, and we aren’t moving," Van de Putte said. "How do we know that the way that we are utilizing this instrument is actually measuring what we need to measure?"
But Williams defended student performance, saying that it was an improvement over where the state was at the same point during the last time it transitioned to a new testing system, the TAKS, in 2005.
"We expect as we have seen in the past that more youngsters will pass that test over time," he said. "We are not only on track but ahead of where we were 10 years ago with the initiation of TAKS."
The 2014 results of state standardized exams — and the continued rollout of a comprehensive 2013 law that changed high school graduation requirements — will again be the focus of discussion Tuesday at a Senate Education Committee hearing.
Lawmakers are set to hear testimony from state education officials, including Commissioner Michael Williams, on students' performance on state tests, as well as on the need for updated writing exams.
At the committee’s last meeting in April, several members expressed concern over the 24 percent of students in the Class of 2015 who were at risk of not graduating on time because they had failed one or more of the five state exams required to graduate, as well as the lower standards that students now had to meet in order to pass.
“What I think it’s critical for the public to understand is what these numbers really mean,” said state Sen. Dan Patrick, the Houston Republican who chairs the committee. "I’m concerned not only with the 24 percent who aren’t on track, I’m concerned that those who are passing aren’t even learning very much.”
Patrick, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, defeated sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a May primary runoff. He faces Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, a fellow education committee member, in November.
The meeting — the committee's second since the legislative session ended — will also cover a new school meal policy for low-income students and a law expanding virtual education in the state.
Testifying before the committee in April, Criss Cloudt, an associate TEA commissioner, said she expected better performance from students that spring.
“I may eat my words, but I am anticipating that we will see some significant improvement in scores this spring,” she said. “It’s time for educators to teach differently and have that content reflected in the STAAR testing program."
Tuesday’s hearing comes as Williams recently announced that the state would further delay a scheduled phase-in of higher passing standards, which were initially set at a lower level to easer the transition to the new assessment system.
“While I firmly believe that our students are capable of reaching the high expectations reflected in the TEKS and the STAAR performance standards, moving to a three-step phase-in plan gives educators additional time to make the significant adjustments in instruction necessary to raise the level of performance of all Texas students,” Williams said in a statement when he announced the decision Thursday.