AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Education Commissioner Michael Williams said Monday that Texas' system for rating schools should rely in part on how well districts close achievement gaps between minority and white students "because it's just who we are as a state."
Texas' top public education official told The Associated Press that black and Hispanic students, whose numbers continue to increase statewide, struggle more on standardized tests than whites.
"The gap between them and their Anglo counterparts is still larger than I think anybody would want it," said Williams, who is in just his seventh week on the job.
"Sixty percent of our nearly 5 million kids are economically disadvantaged and almost 65 percent are black and brown," he said. "So that has to be part of the focus of this state. It's not something unique to Michael, it's just who we are."
Schools and districts are currently rated and ranked according to student performance on state-mandated standardized tests. School officials complain it's an all-or-nothing program based on a series of tests on different subjects. If their kids fail in one area, schools can be labeled "academically unacceptable."
Williams said that part of his job, by law, is to improve the accountability system and wants the new one still to be based on test scores, but also take into account student progress, student post-graduation preparedness and progress in closing the gap for minority and economically disadvantaged kids.
He said the rating system should "give school districts credit for what they're doing well and, quite frankly, also call attention to what's not going well."
Williams will decide on the new system in March. He first proposed it publicly last week during his inaugural appearance before the State Board of Education.
"Five million youngsters are going to go through this system," he said Monday. "They are going to be our next set of college graduates, our next set of workers. So if we don't get them prepared, we're taking a huge chunk of the future of Texas and falling short."
Gov. Rick Perry chose Williams in August to replace Robert Scott, who stepped down this summer. Scott had turned heads by suggesting that too much emphasis on standardized testing was a "perversion" of the original intent of the school accountability system.
Williams said he's "not even close" to making a similar assessment, but conceded that a new rating system could lower the testing stakes: "If we take some of the pressure out of the balloon by measuring schools in a more balanced way, that itself will reduce some of the pressure on testing.
"There won't be as much anxiety among superintendents and principals," Williams said, "and that won't flow down to teachers and down to kids."
Williams took the reins at a time when state funding for schools saw a dramatic reduction in funding. The Legislature voted in 2011 to cut $5.4 billion from schools and education grant programs, even as public school enrollment has grown by an average of 80,000 students annually in recent years.
School districts representing more than three-quarters of Texas students have filed six lawsuits against the state, alleging that the way it now funds schools is so inefficient and unfair that it violates the Texas Constitution.
In the Austin courtroom of state District Judge John Dietz, several witnesses have testified that, in the future, how competitive Texas' workforce is will depend on if it can close achievement gaps among minority- and low income-students.
Williams said remaking the school rating system is not related to the case — even though the process is "not going on a vacuum."
"I am aware there is a lawsuit," he said. "I've got enough to say grace over without worrying about the trial."
The cuts also coincided with the implementation of a new, more rigorous standardized testing system known as STAAR.
Williams stressed that all students will continue to take STAAR tests, and dismissed the notion that tougher exams could mean that achievement gaps will grow even larger for minority or low-income students. He offered no specifics, however, on what schools and districts can do to better close them.
"I'm not prepared to say that because they got more difficult, the gap's going to widen," he said. "We're going to get better at instruction as a state, better at how to instruct students and how to provide support materials to teachers."
Williams also said that while it will be up to the Legislature to set public education funding when it reconvenes in January, he doesn't believe districts will need more money to close achievement gaps.
"In the current model, we may not have placed as much emphasis on closing the achievement gap. I still would have hoped that would be high on a superintendent's or a campus principal's mind," he said. "It is now going to be distinctly measured and that may be an incentive."