Davis renews pre-K testing attack amid tollway talk


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and chief photojournalist SCOTT GUEST


Posted on April 14, 2014 at 8:57 PM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 15 at 5:00 AM

AUSTIN, Texas -- Addressing enthusiastic supporters at the Texas State Teachers Association's Austin headquarters, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis resumed criticism of Republican opponent and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's plan for pre-Kindergarten programs.

"He calls for more tests for four-year olds," the Fort Worth state senator said to a chorus of boos Monday. "Four-year olds should be coloring with crayons, not filling in at bubble test with a number two pencil."

Davis continues to highlight differences between the two candidates' proposals dealing with early education. Davis supports making full-day pre-K available statewide, with families whose incomes are too high to qualify for free pre-K able to pay tuition based on a sliding scale. Abbott's proposal would make additional per-pupil funding available to programs which agree to implement so-called "gold standard" policies.

Last week Abbott's campaign said the student assessment recommendation in his 26-page policy paper was there for "informational purposes only." Davis mocked the Abbott campaign's response on Monday, reading directly from the text. Under Abbott's proposal to increase the quality of programs receiving additional state funding, schools would also have to establish and implement ways to measure and track success. From page 21:

In order to equip the Commissioner of Education with the data necessary to properly evaluate prekindergarten programs, lawmakers should amend the Education Code to require school districts with prekindergarten programs to administer assessments at the beginning and end of the school year. There are at least three methods of assessing students at the prekindergarten level:

  • Direct Assessments, norm referenced standardized tests: A typical question on a direct assessment might ask the child to identify the letter B and provide three options. The child receives credit for correctly identifying the letter. Direct assessments are in some views deficient because they do not capture the full spectrum of the students skill set and cannot truly be used to determine quality of the program.
  • Observation Checklists and Scales: Assessment under this method requires that teachers informally watch students within the daily routine and observe their mastery. This option does provide a more complete capture of the student’s progress but is contingent on teachers being well-­-trained in the method. Such assessments are also labor intensive. 
  • Child’s Work (Portfolio): Assessing children’s work acts as a complement to a teachers observed progress. This method does not capture the entire picture of a student’s progress and tends to be labor intensive for teachers.

"Given how unpopular the testing of our kids in school systems across the state today are, I can understand why he's trying to back away from what his plan says," said Davis. "But for informational purposes only? Really? You can come up with a better excuse than that."

The issue flared up later Monday afternoon following an online discussion on the Abbott campaign's Townhall 254 website hosted by Texas Institute for Education Reform chairman Jim Windham. Asked by a user identifying herself as Adriana May whether Abbott wants to "test 4 yr olds," Windham gave the following response:

"'Testing' 4-years olds will not be the same as the assessments we administer to older children. But we do need diagnostics to determine the needs of the child and efficacy of the methodologies being used. There have been a number of normed Pre-K assessments that evaluate vocabulary and fluency very easily."

The answer resulted in a follow-up from Texans for Greg Abbott policy analyst MC Lambeth, "Thanks Adriana. To clarify – this is for informational purposes only and is not standardized testing for 4 year olds."

Abbott's campaign says Windham is not connected to the the campaign in any official capacity and played no role in writing Abbott's education policy. The campaign says "guest hosts" like Windham commonly participate in discussions on Abbott's Townhall 254 Website. Nonetheless, Windham's remarks were quickly seized upon.

"Someone forgot to tell Jim Windham that the part of Abbott's pre-k plan that calls for standardized testing is there for 'informational purposes only,'" Davis communications director Zac Petkanas wrote in a statement.  "Despite the Abbott campaign's claims to the contrary, there can be no doubt that Greg Abbott's plan would impose standardized testing onto 4 year olds now that their education advisor admitted it at an official campaign event."

“Sen. Davis will say anything at this point to avoid talking about her ethical problems and lining her pockets at the taxpayers’ expense, including mischaracterizing Greg Abbott’s education plan," Texans for Greg Abbott communications director Matt Hirsch responded in a statement. "Contrary to Sen. Davis’ plan that calls for billions in new spending while maintaining the status quo, Greg Abbott’s plan does not impose standardized testing, and it removes the mandates from Austin and gives genuine local control and flexibility to school districts to achieve the gold-standard for pre-K.”

Meanwhile Abbott's campaign is focused on a weekend article in the Dallas Morning News detailing Davis' votes on legislation affecting the North Texas Tolling Authority (NTTA) while her law firm conducted legal work on its behalf. According to the report by Wayne Slater, after Davis' law firm was hired to do land-condemnation work for a toll authority project in 2011, Davis dropped her own bill capping toll collection fees in order to support another bill supported by the toll authority.

“This is the latest lapse for a candidate plagued by ethical challenges," Hirsch said earlier Monday. "Texans should be able to trust that their elected officials are casting votes based on what’s best for Texas – not their own bank accounts. Not only do Texans deserve answers from Sen. Davis about why she used her position to profiteer at the taxpayers’ expense, they deserve a higher level of transparency and honesty from candidates seeking to become Texas’ next governor.”

Davis' campaign Monday argues the second bill filed by state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) was stronger than Davis' bill. While Davis' bill would have capped administrative fees charged to toll violators at $50 per violation, Nelson's capped administrative fees at $200 per invoice. Davis' campaign suggests because several violations would likely show up on the same invoice, Nelson's bill resulted in lower administrative penalties for toll violators overall. The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011.

"Anyone who has watched me on the Texas Senate floor knows that my first, most important priority always is the constituents that I represent," Davis told KVUE Monday. "I am a fighter for my constituents on a myriad of issues including making sure that the abusive fines and penalties that were being leveled against them by NTTA were put to a stop, and I was very proud to join unanimously with Republicans and Democrats alike in the Texas Senate to vote to crack down on those abuses."

Explore Abbott's education proposals with the following link:

Educating Texans Plan: Pre-K -- Third Grade

Explore Davis' education proposals with the links below:

Great Pathways - Great Texas policy

Great Pathways - Great Texas summary

Great Start - Great Texas policy

Great Start - Great Texas summary

Great Teachers - Great Texas policy

Great Teachers - Great Texas summary