From the desk of Dr. Kirk Lewis

Updates from the Superintendent


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Just the Facts

Those of you who are near my age will remember the television show Dragnet. Sgt. Joe Friday, in a clipped, monotone voice would try to cut through the fog of information by saying, “Just the facts, sir.”

I feel much the same way each legislative session when I hear politicians speak about removing the cap on charter schools to allow unlimited expansion. The refrain has always been that charter school competition will make public schools better. Without a doubt, there are some very good charter schools. They are meeting a need for some students that have fallen through the system in public schools. Traditional schools have had to step up our game to serve all students better than we did in the past. I believe most districts have done that.

Let’s look at few facts as provided by the Texas Sunset Advisory Board:

  • The percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable is almost double the percentage found in traditional public schools (11.2 percent for charters and 5.9 percent for public schools).
  • The percentage of charter school operators who fail the state’s financial accountability standards in 2012 was six times more than public school districts (13.1 percent to 2 percent)
  • Charter schools represent 71 percent of the campuses facing state sanctions, yet their numbers comprise only 17 percent of the total public school campuses in Texas.
  • More than 50 charter schools have been rated academically unacceptable for 3 plus years and one campus has been academically unacceptable for 7 years, percentages far higher than those seen in traditional public schools.

The debate continues in Austin about expanding the charter options, despite no research that shows they are doing a better job, as a rule, than most traditional schools and despite a very uneven playing field of rules and regulations. I am not advocating an end to the experiment with charter schools. However, I encourage you to let your legislators know that continued operation of a poor performing charter schools is a drain on a financially strapped system.


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The Tipping Point in Testing

Teachers and administrators have grown increasingly frustrated at the high stakes testing pushed by the State of Texas in recent years. I think the introduction of the STAAR exam and the explosion of end-of-course exams linked so closely to graduation finally brought the issue to its tipping point with parents. It’s great to see common sense returning to the system.

 Representative Jimmy Don Aycock from Kileen and the Honorable Dan Patrick from Houston, both of whom chair the education committees in the Texas House and Senate, respectively, have championed a major change in graduation requirements and the amount of testing required for our high schools students. The House passed a bill this week that reduced the number of required end-of-course exams to five: Algebra I, Biology, U.S. History and English II (with a separate Writing exam). That is welcomed news. The Senate version of the bill adds two additional tests including English I with its separate writing exam. Debate continues on the merits of adding Algebra II into the mix. What seems clear now is that the number of tests required in high school will be reduced from 15 to somewhere between 5 to 8 exams. The provision for testing in late May instead of April will give teachers additional time to cover the material. That’s welcomed news for students, teachers, and campus administrators.

The House bill’s shift in graduation requirements also gives students greater choice and flexibility in pursuing a diploma plan that more closely matches their college or career interests. The current requirement that every student take four years of math, science, English and social studies limited student options, particularly for those interested in a career or technical field. Under the House plan and versions proposed in the Senate, students are required to take four years of English, but only three years in the other core subjects, enabling them to take more electives in areas of personal interest. To maintain the push for rigor in all areas, diploma endorsements will be encouraged in the areas of arts and humanities, business and industry, public services, science and math and multidisciplinary studies.

This has been a good week for public education in Texas. Now, the legislature just needs to finish the good work by reducing the number of tests required in grades 3-8. Another bill. Another day. Keep contacting your legislators.


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Creating Academic Choices

The student’s sense of frustration was evident in the letter he wrote to me asking for clarification on the state’s graduation requirements. The current system requires four years of math, science, English and social studies (4 years in 4 subjects…4 x 4) if a student in Texas wants to enter a four-year state university. The intent of the state’s 4 x 4 provision fell under a tag of “college readiness.” The law suggests that one cannot be “college ready” without successfully completing the 4 x 4 requirements and earning a Texas Recommended diploma. If a student does not complete the 4 x 4 requirement, the student falls to a Texas Minimum Diploma, with negative connotations attached to it that demean the student’s work while in high school.

Before I suggest that now is the time for change, let me first share that I believe in high expectations and academic rigor for every student. There was a time when far too few of our students were considering a college education. I believe we have changed that culture. Given the high level of poverty in our school community, far more of our students that one might expect now know they are capable of college work. I also want to ensure that every possible pathway to a four-year university education is available to all our students through expanded Advanced Placement and Dual Credit offerings. With more than 3,100 AP tests taken last year (up from just 400 only a few years ago) and new Dual Credit opportunities expanding at each high school, I believe we’ve started down a successful path.

However, not every high school graduate desires or needs a university degree. In addition, our local businesses and industries need a wide-ranging work force to fill employment needs including high school graduates, holders of job certificates and associate’s degrees, as well as those with university diplomas.

That’s why I believe the proposed legislative changes offered by Sen. Dan Patrick and Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock offer flexibility in graduation plans that address the varied needs of our students and our communities. Their proposals, though slightly different, call for four years of English, three years each of math and social studies and two years of science. Most of the remaining 26 credits are essentially elective courses that allow students to dig more deeply into their personal career interests to earn “endorsements” in business/industry, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), public services and arts/humanities.

There are those who will suggest that the change from the 4 x 4 requirement is a retreat in rigor. It’s hard to argue that point; however, when the number and type of proposed credits in Patrick’s and Aycock’s bills match what the University of Texas and other Texas state universities require of their out-of-state students.  In other words, we allow out-of-state students a more diverse path to university study than we do our own Texas children. Something about that feels wrong.

Students and parents are growing frustrated with the restrictive nature of the Recommended and Distinguished graduation plans. Whether or not you feel the course requirements need to change, now would be a good time to contact your legislators. The bills are being discussed now in Austin.

The young man who wrote me was going to have to sacrifice earning a Recommended Diploma because he wanted to substitute some rigorous high school courses for the fourth year of math and science he was being forced to take…courses that would mean little toward his chosen profession. It just seems to me that he ought to have that option without affecting his future.


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A Case for Flexibility

As we reflect upon our life achievements, it may be that graduating from high school would stand as our first significant accomplishment. The focus on what a high school diploma means has evolved over the years. When I graduated high school in 1972 B.C. (Before Computers), that little piece of paper meant only that I had met the requirements for graduation from high school. It did not reflect my readiness for college or career training. The assumption was that if I wished to attend college, I’d prove my readiness by scoring highly enough on the SAT/ACT and subsequently by passing the college curriculum. The proof was in the pudding, in my ability to make the grade. Today, a Recommended or Distinguished high school diploma is supposed to mean a graduate is college ready.

At the heart of a debate swirling through the legislative halls in Austin today is the idea that not every student desires to be prepped for a four-year college experience, nor does every community need that level of proficiency for the job market that sustains its local economic growth. As Shakespeare might say, “There’s the rub.” The conflict in philosophy depends on whether your company needs engineers or welders, whether your community is supported solely by high-tech industries or a mixed employment environment like Pasadena that requires four-year degrees and/or certifications and associates degrees.

There is absolutely no question that public education needs to push toward more rigor in preparing our students for the university experience. Too many of us in the past were unprepared for the challenges of college curriculum. It is a commitment Pasadena ISD made eight years ago with Expectation Graduation. However, there is no question that students need scheduling flexibility allowing allows them to gravitate toward career interests that match their dreams and ambitions.

New graduation plans are being discussed in Austin. These plans propose a Foundation high school diploma with multiple endorsements in a number of fields of study…in essence a high school major…rather than the Minimum, Recommended or Distinguish Diploma Plans currently in place. A Foundation diploma would indicate that students have demonstrated they are college or career ready. The Foundation diploma gives students more options for a satisfying life and career.  The proposals offered by Sen. Dan Patrick, Sen. Kel Seliger, Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, Rep. John Davis and others deserve serious consideration by the Texas Legislature. 

Any plan that offers increased flexibility is a positive move for our students, for the Pasadena community and for the State of Texas.


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Bring Reason to State Testing

The pressure of high stakes testing on students, parents, teachers and principals hit its boiling point over the past year.  Once the legislators heard from enough parents, many representatives and senators began proposing changes to the accountability system that would reduce the number of tests a student must take and change how those tests will count toward graduation.  Any change would be welcomed relief.

Currently, students are tested every year from third grade to eighth grade. The students take end-of-course exams while in high school in all of the core academic subjects. Success on these exams is required for graduation. It is a cumbersome and complicated system that few understand.

Most of the proposals out of Austin reduce testing to grades 3, 5 and 8, in reading and math. Writing, science and social studies would be offered possible in 4th and 7th grades only. There has been some discussion of reducing the required number of end-of-course exams and simplifying how those tests will impact graduation.

Schools should be accountable to the community for the success of every student we serve. However, standardized tests should not be the only measure of student success. Eliminating the emphasis on a single test will certainly take some of the pressure off our students and our teachers.

We will keep you posted as the proposals develop. Let us know if you have specific concerns or questions about the plans for testing.


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Excessive Testing

I completed my doctorate in 2008. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to Lamar University that its doctoral program focused on written research papers rather than tests to assess my knowledge. More than a quarter century has passed since I last took a test. The prospect of facing a high stakes test for graduation would have been daunting.

That’s why I understand why students and their parents across Texas are saying “enough is enough” to the number of high stakes tests our students endure during their years in public schools. The Pasadena ISD Board of Trustees joined a host of other school districts around the state in a joint resolution to echo the displeasure expressed by parents about the oppressive nature of high stakes testing. When the Texas Legislature convenes in January, we expect a great deal of discussion about reducing the number of tests given and easing the pressure facing our students and our teachers.

The tests were born out of a need for rigorous accountability. I believe in school and district accountability. Standardized tests and teacher developed assessments are necessary to assess how much our students have learned during a year and to diagnose the effectiveness of what we teach and how we teach it. However, I also know you don’t need to test every student every year to determine if the schools are educating our students.

It’s my hope the Texas Legislature will amend the state assessment program to keep a rigorous accountability system while restoring some time into the school year for the sheer joy of learning.

I know our legislators would appreciate hearing from you.