Texas is on the verge of reversing its steady march toward increased high-stakes testing and tougher graduation standards in public schools with the state Senate’s unanimous approval Monday of House Bill 5.
The legislation cuts the number of end-of-course exams students need for graduation from 15 to five. It also creates new diploma plans aimed at giving students more flexibility to pursue career training courses.
“We’re talking about one of the most important pieces of legislation not just this session but in any session because it impacts over 5 million students and families,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “So you have to get it right.”
The House and Senate must now work out their differences before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry.
While the two chambers are pretty close on the testing provisions, the Senate increased graduation requirements beyond what the House has approved. That change might help avert a Perry veto.
Under the Senate bill, all students will begin on a path toward an “endorsement,” which would require different courses based on whether the student is focusing on career training, science and math, or arts and humanities. They could also pursue a distinguished academic plan akin to the current 4x4: four years each of English, math science and social studies.
“It’s going to give students the flexibility to follow their passion,” Patrick said of the new pathways to graduation. “We’re not stepping back on 4x4. We just allow students to make substitutions in certain courses where their interests lie.”
Students who hope to qualify for automatic admission to a Texas college under the state’s top-ten provision must take English 3 and Algebra 2, which is not required under the career-training endorsement.
The additional graduation requirements in the Senate version failed to win over some critics who say Texas is backing off its commitment to high standards.
“We already graduate only 25 percent of students who are career- or college-ready. I don’t understand why many of our lawmakers are dead set on running away from strong requirements meant to increase that number and put in place standards that will do just the opposite,” said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business.
The lopsided vote masked the difficulty in getting the bill to floor for a vote.
The bill has been languishing in the Senate since late March, when it cleared the House on a near-unanimous vote.
Patrick had signaled that he wanted to pass legislation early enough to reduce the end-of-course requirements for students this spring but many of those exams are being administered this week.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he held up the legislation waiting for House progress on a Senate bill that opens the door for more charter schools. In the meantime, Dewhurst pressed for the inclusion of more tests, a priority for some business leaders.
The compromise that freed up the measure gives school districts the option of administering end-of-course exams in Algebra 2 and English 3. The exams will be used to measure whether students are prepared for college and will not be required for graduation, nor used to rate schools or teachers.
Amid the lengthy floor debate, Patrick said he was having second thoughts about their agreement. He was concerned they were creating the “de facto addition of two tests.”
“I could see every school district in the state doing it because there is no harm-no foul to them,” Patrick said.
State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who was carrying the Dewhurst-backed amendment, said he was “shocked beyond all belief that you would reach such a conclusion at this point in the debate.”
“I’m sorry you’re shocked,” Patrick said. “I do have a right to think and think through an issue.”
Changes to Texas high school graduation and testing requirements
Current: 15 end-of-course exams, including Algebra 2, Physics and 11th-grade Reading and Writing
Senate: 5 end-of-course exams: Algebra, Biology, U.S. History, Ninth- and 10th-grade English (combined reading and writing)
House: 5 end-of-course exams: Algebra, Biology, U.S. history, 10th-grade Reading, 10th-grade Writing
Default Graduation Plan
Current: Four years English, math, science and social studies
Senate: Four years English, three years each math, science and social studies plus an endorsement, such as Arts & Humanities, Business & Industry or Science, Technology, Engineering & Math
House: Four years English, three years each math, science and social studies