A state law that has allowed thousands of high school students to bypass state standardized testing requirements to graduate is set to expire in September.
Kel Seliger, the Republican state senator from Amarillo who originally proposed the law, has filed a bill that would keep the policy in place permanently.
“Even though assessment systems are important, there’s nothing magical about the STAAR exam. The folks at NASA never took a TAKS or STAAR test, and yet we muddled our way to the moon,” Seliger said Thursday.
To graduate from high school, students must pass five end-of-course State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Seliger’s bill in 2015 revised the requirement so that students who fail one or two of the tests could still graduate as long as they meet all other requirements, including passing all of their classes. A committee of the student’s teacher, principal and parents must give unanimous consent to his or her graduation.
Parents, advocates and school district officials, some of whom have criticized the STAAR for being too difficult, have said that the committees give students with test anxiety and learning disabilities a reprieve from unfair penalties that keep them from moving on to careers and college after high school.
Critics, such as Texas Association of Business officials, have said the policy has created an easy way for school districts and students to avoid the consequences of doing subpar work.
Sandy Kress, a policy consultant who was a senior education adviser to former President George W. Bush, said that graduation committees water down the state’s academic standards and send a message to the workforce and public that the diploma doesn’t really matter. He said students who fail the STAAR requirements but are allowed to graduate should be given a different certification.
“Lawmakers can solve the problem for the ones who truly deserve relief and create some options for parents and students … but they need to do it in a way that doesn’t create disincentives for all the rest of the students to perform at higher levels, which is important to them to get good jobs and important to the state in terms of growth and economy,” Kress said.
In 2015, the latest year for which data is available from the Texas Education Agency, 5,855 Texas seniors graduated under the committee process — about 2 percent of all graduating seniors that year. Those seniors who would have otherwise been held back actually boosted statewide graduation rates by 2 percent to 89 percent.
In 2016, most Central Texas school districts increased the use of the graduation committees. In the Austin school district, 151 seniors graduated through the committees in 2016, a 35 percent increase from the year before. In the Hays school district, only three seniors graduated under the committees in 2015; in 2016, 59 graduated.
Seliger, along with state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood, who supported the policy in the House, said the committee process doesn’t give students a free pass to graduate. Some school districts have denied students graduation if they haven’t met academic requirements.
In the Austin district, for example, 50 seniors in 2015 and 2016 failed to graduate through graduation committees.
Jodi Duron, the Elgin school district superintendent, said that during the process, teachers will use projects and portfolios to assess the student.
“It’s being used very judiciously and prudently in the best interest of kids,” Duron said. “Not all students are making it through the (committee process). We put different provisions in place so that at some point they’ll be able to graduate.”
Students given reprieve
Corey Daniels, an 18-year-old Connally High School senior in the Pflugerville district, has failed two standardized tests 15 times, once by five points. He already has a football scholarship to Howard Payne University and hopes he will still have an opportunity to graduate in the spring under the committee process.
“My main frustration is … taking it over and over and over again,” said Daniels, who attended a Capitol news conference Thursday to unveil Seliger’s Senate Bill 463. “I’ve had multiple friends quit their main sport or want to drop out just because of this one test … and I don’t want to do that.”
Regan Lively, a Flower Mound native who now attends Oklahoma Christian University, was in a similar situation. Lively, who has dyslexia, failed the U.S. history STAAR test multiple times even though she had scored A’s in her history classes and would go on to earn an A in U.S. history in college.
After going through the graduation committee process, she got her high school diploma one month before she left for college, where she had received a $16,000 academic scholarship.
“If this bill didn’t get passed, I wouldn’t be in college,” Lively said.
Bypassing STAAR requirements
Year | Total seniors graduated through committee | Total seniors rejected to graduate through committee
2014-15 | 112 | 23
2015-16 | 151| 27
2014-15 | 22 | 1
2015-16 | 41 | 0
2014-15 | 7 | 0
2015-16 | 11 | 0
2014-15 | 36 | 0
2015-16 | 60 | 0
2014-15 | 3 | 0
2015-16 | 59 | 8
2014-15 | 27 | 0
2015-16 | 68 | 0
2014-15 | 20 | 1
2015-16 | 34 | 2
*2014-15 | 14 | 3
2015-16 | 37 | 0
2014-15 | 2 | 0
2015-16 | 3 | 0
2014-15 | 0 | 0
2015-16 | 0 | 0
2014-15 | 7 | 0
2015-16 | 12 | 0
2014-15 | 13 | 0
2015-16 | 13 | 2
2014-15 | 2 | 0
2015-16 | 2 | 0
Source: Central Texas school districts
*The 2014-15 information from the Manor school district is incomplete. It does not include the number of students who graduated under the committee system at one of its campuses.
Georgetown’s school district didn’t provide information by press deadline on Thursday.