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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

House advances bill easing path to diploma

By Gary Scharrer | My San Antonio
Thursday, April 7, 2011

AUSTIN — The Texas House tentatively approved a bill Wednesday to make it easier for high school students to pass end-of-course exams — a move critics called “a substantial retreat” from school accountability.

“This bill creates a clear, understandable path to graduation,” House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said of his legislation, HB 500.

Business and education reform groups complained the bill would weaken efforts to ensure all high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

Some legislators also used the debate to blast the entire testing issue and reliance on standardized tests to measure student achievement.

The House will take a final vote on the bill today before it moves to the Senate, where it is unlikely to get a friendly reception. Senate Public Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has repeatedly expressed opposition to diluting end-of-course testing.

Two years ago, lawmakers approved HB 3, replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills with end-of-course exams for high school students.

Under that bill, starting in the 2011-12 school year, students are to take 12 end-of-course exams in math, science, social studies and English language arts. They must earn a minimum score to be determined by the state commissioner of education.

Under Eissler's bill, students would have to pass only four end-of-course exams — in English, algebra, science and social studies — to earn a diploma.

He called the changes an “appropriate balance between teaching, learning and accountability.”

With more than 120 co-sponsors for the bill, Rep. Todd Smith, R-Bedford, knew it would pass but told colleagues he felt “morally obligated to sound a loud alarm.”

He said the changes would dilute the state's incremental upgrading of accountability standards, designed to produce high school graduates who are college-ready.

“We are raising the white flag without any evidence that there is a problem” with HB 3, Smith said. “This is not about improving our accountability system; it's a significant step toward dismantling it.”

HB 500 also directs the Texas Education Agency not to use projected improvement in school accountability ratings, which cast doubt on last year's ratings.

Projections are appropriate to set expectations but not for measuring actual student improvement, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said before getting unanimous support for his amendment.

Hochberg also won easy approval for an amendment creating a pilot program to exempt students from a standardized test if they passed it the previous year.

“If we know they're going to pass that test, why give it to them?” he asked. It would be better for schools to concentrate time and effort on struggling students, Hochberg said.

Lawmakers also unanimously approved HB 6, which would replace the system of funding textbooks and instructional materials with a new “instructional materials allotment,” including books, computer software, magnetic media, DVDs, CD-ROMs and computer courseware.

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