By Ericka Mellon | Houston Chronicle
February 6, 2013
AUSTIN - Texas lawmakers may not be united on upping public school funding, but a flurry of recently filed bills shows they have heard pleas from parents and educators to reduce testing and ease graduation requirements.
In a sign that lawmakers are listening, senators on Wednesday passed their first bill of the session, to end the mandate that students' grades be tied to their scores on state exams. On the same day, the leader of the House Public Education Committee filed an omnibus bill with bipartisan support that would reduce high-stakes testing and give students more options for coursework.
Parents and superintendents say they are optimistic about changes this year, while some business leaders worry the state will continue to produce graduates unprepared for college or the workforce.
"We are definitely being heard," said Susan Kellner, an organizer of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group that supports less testing.
The group's first victory came Wednesday when the Senate voted to eliminate the rule that state exams count for 15 percent of high school students' final grades.
The House is likely to follow suit, with similar bills already filed and Gov. Rick Perry expressing support for leaving the grading decision up to local school districts.
The omnibus bill filed Wednesday by the House's education leader, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, would end the grading mandate, as well as cut the number of mandatory high school exams from 15 to five. The widely feared algebra II exam would be optional, and students could take a greater variety of courses to meet graduation requirements.
The bill also would end a three-tiered diploma system that prevents students on the easiest plan from entering four-year universities.
"I think it is a major step in the right direction with regard to testing and accountability," Brian Woods, superintendent of the Northside school district in San Antonio, said of Aycock's bill.
The proposed changes come just a year after Texas launched its new, harder testing system, approved by lawmakers several years ago. Results show that 35 percent of this year's sophomores still have not passed at least one of the exams, putting them off track for graduation.
"I think lawmakers are listening," said H.D. Chambers, superintendent of the Alief school district in Houston. "I think the moms have obviously gotten their attention because those are the people whose children's education are at stake."
Chambers said he can support five end-of-course exams, though he prefers three - in reading, writing and algebra I.
"I do not believe that every student in the state of Texas needs to demonstrate mastery of algebra II," he said.
Chambers said he is particularly pleased that bills in the House and Senate would give students more course options rather than having to follow a prescribed plan of four years of traditional math and science classes. Students instead could graduate with "endorsements" in areas such as business, arts and humanities, or public service careers.
Business groups, however, are worrying aloud that state lawmakers may lower expectations for students. For example, the new House bill would require students to pass a test in sophomore English to graduate, instead of the tougher 11th-grade class.
"The way to improve college readiness is not to reduce expectations," said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, a Perry appointee, likewise has urged lawmakers not to retreat from school accountability, noting that elementary and middle school students did well on the first round of the new tests last spring.
While lawmakers seem to agree generally that high school graduation requirements need to be more flexible, they are far from consensus on specifics.
"The details of that will make the next 110 days interesting," said Ellen Williams, an Austin lobbyist who specializes in education.