Worries that Gov. Rick Perry might veto House Bill 5 ended Monday when the governor signed into law the measure reforming the state’s high school testing and curriculum requirements. We don’t know if Perry actually had considered rejecting the bill, as widespread speculation had it. If so, Perry settled on the right decision.
The legislation represents a necessary correction to excessive changes passed by the Legislature in 2009 that created the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exams. The bill signed by Perry reduces the number of end-of-course exams high school students must take to graduate from 15 to five. It also revises the state’s so-called 4x4 graduation plan. Every high school student no longer will be required to take four years each of math, science, social studies and English but will have greater options to pursue either college- or vocational-relevant graduation paths.
Led through the Legislature by Republican state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, HB 5 should ease the apprehension and anxiety that followed the arrival of the end-of-course exams, which stirred unprecedented opposition from parents, teachers and administrators. Parents were justifiably fed up with the amount of high-stakes testing that awaited their children, and the plan to count end-of-course exam results as 15 percent of a student’s final course grade prompted deep concerns about its negative effect on grade point averages and college prospects.
Public pressure forced the Texas Education Agency to suspend the 15 percent rule. The pressure ultimately led to Perry putting pen to paper on Monday and signing HB 5 into law.
Several business groups, included those representing Texas manufacturers, builders, hospitals and bankers, rallied behind HB 5, to their credit. Others, such as the Austin Chamber of Commerce, fretted about lowered expectations and reduced graduation standards. The Austin Chamber had encouraged Perry to veto HB 5, arguing that the bill would weaken the ability of the state’s high school graduates to compete for high-wage, high-skill jobs.
Students need to be prepared for college and the demands of a complex workplace. This is a reality no one denies. House Bill 5 does not alter the goal of graduating students ready for college and a career. Indeed, for high school students who don’t want to go to a four-year college — and let’s face it, college is not for everyone — the legislation improves their options and brightens their futures.
Flexibility has replaced accountability as the latest legislative and educational reform buzz word. House Bill 5’s imperfections will reveal themselves as the law takes effect. The options it introduces undoubtedly will create confusion that might prove tricky to navigate, at least initially. We’ll be surprised if tweaks don’t await legislators in the next few sessions.
But HB 5 is a welcome move away from the outsized life that legislators and education reformers have given high-stakes testing over the past few decades — an outsized life that led some reformers to associate more tests with better tests. As we’ve written previously, testing is a valuable tool when used to set benchmarks and assess student progress. Testing defeats its purpose when used to punish schools and students. It should be used as a ruler, not a hammer.
The new education law won’t bring 30 years of debate about standardized testing to an end. One probably will continue to wonder whether standardized testing, at least the emphasis the state has placed on it, is as much the problem as it is the solution. But any step, however small, toward reinforcing a teacher’s responsibility to a student’s classroom education and away from a focusing on a student passing a standardized test is a welcome step forward.