Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bill would ease testing requirements for Texas high school seniors

By Kiah Collier - American-Statesman Staff
Amid an ongoing backlash against high-stakes testing, Texas high school seniors facing new graduation requirements might get the chance to walk the stage this spring despite failing one or more required state exams.

State Sen. Kel Seliger’s Senate Bill 149 would allow thousands of high school seniors who have failed one or more of five end-of-course tests more than once to receive their diplomas anyway as long as a special panel — made up of their parents, principals, counselors and teachers — unanimously determines they should be able to. The students still would have to pass all their classes and maintain a 2.0 grade point average.
The Amarillo Republican said Thursday the legislation is urgently needed given the sheer number of high school seniors who are at risk of not graduating this May because they have failed one of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exams that now are required for graduation, warning that if they do not get their diplomas they’ll likely drop out.

“Without a high school diploma, these students cannot attend college, join the military or qualify for many jobs,” Seliger said at the beginning of the Senate Education Committee’s first meeting of the legislative session as the panel heard public testimony on his bill.

With the onset last year of the more difficult end-of-course exams, more than 28,100 current high school seniors — about 10 percent — have failed at least one test, according to the Texas Education Agency. That compares with about 9,000 seniors who didn’t receive diplomas last year because they failed the easier Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

The class of 2015 has one final chance to pass exams in May — the same month graduates will walk the stage.

Emphasizing the urgency, Seliger informed the committee Thursday he intends to try to circumvent a ban on considering legislation within the first 60 days of a legislative session so his bill could take effect as soon as possible. That would require a four-fifths majority vote in both chambers of the Legislature.

After the hearing, Seliger expressed strong confidence that his bill would clear that rarely attempted high bar.

And the committee seemed mostly to support the measure Thursday, while educators gave it a ringing endorsement.

However, Seliger also faced tough questions from some Republican committee members, while receiving praise from nearly every Democrat.

Republican Sens. Donna Campbell and Lois Kolkhorst both cast doubt on the measure with Campbell of New Braunfels asking whether the legislation would create a “disincentive” for students to not perform well on the exams and Kolkhorst of Brenham questioning the need for the tests at all if students can simply bypass them.

Seliger’s effort comes two years after state lawmakers unanimously voted to reduce the number of required state tests from 15 to five, responding to similar fears about the impact on graduation rates. By law, students now must pass five end-of-course exams to graduate: English I, English II, Biology, U.S. History and Algebra I. The tests are administered three times a year.

Those who testified in favor of Seliger’s bill Thursday expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of the new STAAR exams — or exams in general — to adequately determine whether a student should be able to graduate.

Elgin school district Superintendent Jodi Duron, who thanked Seliger for his bill, said the new testing system “was poorly executed from its inception.” Most of the 40 seniors at Elgin High School who are at risk of not graduating likely would receive diplomas if the legislation passes, Duran said.
Officials from other Austin-area school districts, including Pflugerville and Hays, told the American-Statesman they also support the legislation.

Wanda Bamberg, superintendent of the Houston-area Aldine school district, estimated that at least 300 of the 390 seniors in her district who still need to pass an exam would graduate if the measure becomes law, although she suggested it should be a temporary program — applicable only to current seniors for whom graduation requirements have changed “mid-stream” to provide an adjustment period. She also gave several examples of students, including one who had been accepted to Prairie View A&M University, who won’t graduate if they don’t pass the May exam.

The influential Austin-based group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment — often credited for single-handedly getting the 2013 legislation passed that reduced the number of state exams — also testified in favor of the legislation, with President Dineen Majcher saying “the issues encompassed by SB 149 are critical priority issues to” the group.

Business groups, however, including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the powerful Texas Association of Business, told the committee the bill’s mechanism isn’t the best way to accomplish its intended goal.

Drew Scheberle, the Austin chamber’s senior vice president for education, suggested that the so-called “graduation committees” the bill would create would inevitably end up approving students for graduation even when they haven’t earned it.

Asked about that criticism, Seliger told the Statesman that “if there’s a bias, there’s a bias toward educators,” emphasizing that the panels would have to reach unanimous consensus for the student to graduate.

The bill was left pending at the end of the hearing rather than being put to a vote, but committee Chairman Larry Taylor said he intends to fast-track it to the Senate floor.

“It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s also insanity when you see the level of achievement these kids are already doing, and yet they can’t even pass this test,” the Friendswood Republican said during the hearing.

Additional material from staff writer Melissa Taboada.

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