Some big changes are coming to Texas public schools now that the Legislature has wrapped up its work on education.
New charter schools will open. New graduation pathways will be developed with more hands-on, career-relevant courses. And some elementary and middle school students could be freed from standardized tests — eventually.
But students and parents probably won’t notice many of these changes for at least a year or even longer as the Texas Education Agency and State Board of Education work out the details.
The exception is state-mandated testing in high school, where students got immediate relief from some end-of-course exam requirements after Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 5 into law recently.
The state reduced from 15 to five the number of end-of-course exams needed to graduate and absolved students who failed any of the exams that have been eliminated: Algebra II, geometry, English III, chemistry, physics, world geography and world history.
Students who failed one of the writing exams will still need to retake the test, even though the new law combines reading and writing into a single assessment. The combined English exams will not be available until next spring.
Students in elementary and middle school could skip the standardized tests in reading and math based on their test scores in earlier grades under House Bill 866.
If a third-grader earned a top score (to be determined later by the TEA)on the reading test, that student would not have to take the fourth-grade exam. Based on the fifth-grade score, that student might also jump over the tests in sixth and seventh grades.
There is a catch. The U.S. Department of Education must grant Texas a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, and that introduces some uncertainty into the equation.
“We feel pretty good about it,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, because the request centers on a small group of students who are proven high performers.
Huberty said he hopes the provisions will be in place by the next round of testing in 2014.
Another bill that addressed testing in elementary and middle school cleared the legislative gantlet, only to be vetoed by Perry.
Despite its original aim of reducing testing in early grades, House Bill 2836 did not change the state testing requirements but put a two-hour time limit on those tests and restricted school districts to two preparatory benchmark tests. It also called for an outside evaluation of the validity of the tests and directed the State Board of Education to streamline the curriculum standards, which educators say are too voluminous to cover in a year.
Perry wrote in a veto statement that the bill had “the potential to de-emphasize the majority of these important curriculum standards in the classroom, and would also circumvent the responsibilities of the elected SBOE.”
The current 4x4 graduation plan — four years each of math, science, social studies and English — will be elbowed aside for an array of new specialized courses of study beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
Students will choose from five different “endorsements,” such as Arts and Humanities; Business and Industry; or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Each endorsement will have different course requirements layered on top of the foundation plan that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.
The State Board of Education is responsible for crafting what courses will be required for each endorsement. That process will begin this fall, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the TEA.
Lawmakers cracked open the door for new charter schools to open in Texas with Senate Bill 2, though parents should not expect a quick expansion.
The new law, which was overhauled for the first time since charter schools were authorized in 1995, gradually raises the cap on new charters, which are privately managed public schools. The cap of 215 charters increases to 225 next year, allowing the new schools to open in the fall of 2015.
Raising the cap was a signal that Texas was creating a “better environment” for charter schools and that should attract some new high-quality operators to the state, said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association.
“In the minds of the charter community … it’s a big improvement,” Dunn said.