Wednesday, April 27, 2011

House votes to ease up on new testing and graduation requirements

Hmm... So Berman's argument, “Why spend almost half a billion dollars for tests that won’t count for anything?” should raise some concerns for the simple fact that it highlight just how much money (in direct costs) are being put into the pockets of testing companies.


By TERRENCE STUTZ | Dallas Morning News
April 2011

AUSTIN — The Texas House, responding to pleas from worried school districts, voted Wednesday to ease up on tough new testing and graduation requirements for high school students.

Although critics said the House bill was a major retreat from strengthening academic expectations, most members voted to pass the legislation, which would allow students to fail as many as eight of 12 new end-of-course exams and still earn a diploma. Tentative approval came on a voice vote, with final action scheduled for Thursday.

The measure, which faces a hostile reception in the Senate, also would scrap a requirement that the end-of-course exams count as 15 percent of a student’s final grade in each of the 12 courses. Instead, school districts would be allowed to decide whether to count the test scores in grades.

Incoming high school freshmen this fall will be the first group of students subject to the new tests.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, author of the bill, rejected complaints that it represents a step back on school improvement efforts, insisting it “does not lower standards” in Texas schools. He also said there is strong public support for reducing the amount of testing in schools.

“We all hear from parents and teachers that schools are more focused on testing than learning. Time and again we hear complaints about drill and kill [on test preparation] in Texas classrooms,” he said.

Eissler said the measure “creates a clear, easily understandable path to graduation in Texas” unlike the current law. The rules now require students to get passing averages on the three exams in each subject area — English, math, science and social studies.

But Rep. Todd Smith. R-Euless, said the bill is a “huge step back” on getting Texas high school students ready for college, as evidenced by the fact that they could “miserably fail eight of the 12 tests and still meet the state’s graduation requirements.”

Smith said Texas has been recognized nationally for setting such high standards for schools, including the new end-of-course exams for high school students.

“Now we’re raising the white flag before we even see there’s a problem,” he told House members. “This is a major sea change, the first time this body will have passed a bill that dramatically lowers standards in our schools.”

Smith also said while school districts are worried about large numbers of their students failing the new exams, the commissioner of education will have authority, as he has had in the past, to adjust passing scores if the exams prove too difficult for most students.

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, who also opposed the bill, said end-of-course tests that have cost the state millions of dollars to develop would become almost meaningless under the legislation.

“Why spend almost half a billion dollars for tests that won’t count for anything?” he asked, noting money spent on the high number of tests that could be failed without consequences.

Eissler said students would still have to pass their courses to graduate and that school districts would have authority to include scores on the tests in final grades.

“It’s a matter of letting local school districts make these decisions. We’re trying to get the state out of micromanaging school districts,” he said.

While Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and other Senate leaders have voiced opposition to backing off on the new testing program — originally approved in 2007 — Eissler said times have changed and many school districts are looking at sizable funding reductions next year.

Under the 2007 testing law, high school students will have to take three exams each in English, math, science and social studies — a total of 12 tests. The law calls on students to achieve a passing average on the three tests in each subject to earn a high school diploma. Field testing of the new exams has found large numbers of students lacking the skills to pass.

Under the House bill approved Wednesday, students would have to pass only the English III and Algebra II exams, and one test each in science and social studies.

In addition, the measure sets up a new two-year transition that would allow students for the next two years to take the outgoing and much easier TAKS exam in lieu of the end-of-course tests.

The House bill has drawn fire from the Governor’s Business Council, Texas Association of Business, Texas Institute for Education Reform and former President George W. Bush’s education adviser, Sandy Kress. All said the House bill would undermine recent academic improvements in the state.

Final House approval is expected Thursday or Friday, before the bill is sent to the Senate, where leaders have said they don’t want to retreat on the new testing and graduation requirements.

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