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Texas moms unite to rein in state's end-of-course testing

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN - When she wasn't doing the type of things that "moms do every day" -- like taking her kids to the tutor or Boy Scouts -- Stacey Amick spent Monday feverishly working the phone and dispatching emails from her Flower Mound home.

By late afternoon, the 43-year-old mother of two had called at least 10 legislators urging them to vote yes on House Bill 5, a gargantuan education proposal scheduled to be debated on the House floor today.

For Amick and hundreds of other parents across the state, passage of HB5 is fundamental to rolling back what they say is an oppressive system of testing that stands in the way of a sound education for their children. The bill not only constitutes the first major education reform to come before the 2013 Legislature, it also demonstrates the grassroots power of Texas mothers when they lock arms in behalf of their kids.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican who also lives in Flower Mound, calls them "the Mamas."

When asked if she has heard from any of the mothers lobbying in behalf of HB5, the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee laughingly responds: "Are you kidding? ... They don't hesitate to let me know how strongly they feel. And they all have my home phone number."

The grassroots lobbying coalition formed around HB5 -- officially called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment -- has prompted comparisons to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which Californian Candy Lightner formed in the den of her home in 1980, just days after 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver.

The driving force behind TAMSA is Dineen Majcher, an Austin attorney who became alarmed when she accompanied her daughter to back-to-school night in 2011 and learned of the new testing regimen. In the ensuing months, she banded with parents across Texas, formally registered TAMSA as a non-profit lobbying organization and ultimately became an expert in legislative policy.

Aided by her husband, fellow lawyer Larry Smith, she has cut her legal practice to half-time to devote time to TAMSA. Although she doesn't know the exact membership, Majcher believes her group has thousands of supporters. Some lawmakers have nicknamed Majcher's group "Mothers Against Drunk Testing," which Majcher considers a compliment.

"This is a bad system and it's got to be changed," she said. "People are messing with our kids. There are kids who are dropping out because they are very discouraged about all these tests."

TAMSA and other backers of the bill gained a powerful new ally on the eve of today's debate when a coalition of 22 industry trade organizations endorsed the measure.

Jobs for Texas, which says it represents 300,000 Texas employers and more than 6 million jobs, wrote to all 150 state representatives saying House Bill 5 "will give students greater flexibility to pursue their interests and will allow schools to develop relevant, up-to-date programs that reflect the demands of Texas employers."

The bill would pare back the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, known as STAAR, reducing the number of end-of-course assessments from 15 to five. Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, a former schoolteacher, introduced similar legislation earlier this year and said she supports the bill by House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

"I think as a result of this legislation the number of assessments will be reduced to an appropriate number that can accurately measure the students' progress and at the same time not cause the entire educational focus to be about assessment," she said.

Far-reaching bill

Debate on the measure could result in the first marathon session of the 83rd Legislature as the Republican-led House works through more than 160 amendments. The high-profile bill also expands course options to put a greater emphasis on career training and includes a new rating system designed to make schools more accountable.

In an op-ed article in the Star-Telegram last week, Aycock said the bill has "broad support from parents, educators and the business community."

One of those parents, Amick, has been working on behalf of the bill as an energized member of TAMSA. A Fort Worth native and a TCU alum, Amick said she became concerned about flaws in the state's testing system years ago and how they distorted the academic accomplishments of her daughter, who had mild learning disabilities.

"When it came to these standardized tests, it was never a reflection of what she could do in the classroom," said Amick, a registered nurse who now describes herself as a stay-at-home mom. After the latest testing regime was unveiled, she joined forces with other like-minded parents to try to affect change in Austin.

"It was going to be replaced with something more awful," she said. "When I caught wind of what they were going to do, I jumped right onboard."

Like Dineen Majcher, she has learned about the legislative process and makes frequent trips to Austin to lobby lawmakers, often testifying before House and Senate education committees.

"I don't know a single parent who thinks this current regime is a good thing," she said.

Opposing viewpoint

Meanwhile, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams told a Senate committee Monday that he hopes lawmakers don't let the number of standardized tests fall below eight.

He proposed combining currently separate reading and writing exams into a single test but giving it at the English I and III levels, while also requiring exams in Algebra I, biology and U.S. history for graduation.

Williams also said students should choose to take exams in either Algebra II or geometry, and pick between physics or chemistry and world history or world geography.

"What we test is what gets taught," he said.

This report contains material from The Associated press.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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