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House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements

This is a big deal.

Texas public high school students would face far fewer high-stakes exams and gain more freedom in choosing courses under a major education bill approved by the state House on Tuesday.

Hours of debate among lawmakers centered on whether the state was giving students much-needed flexibility or scaling back too far – eliminating an Algebra II class as a standard graduation requirement, for example.

The bill, which is similar to proposals in the Senate, says students would have to pass five end-of-course exams to graduate, down from 15. It also scraps the default requirement that students take four years of math and science courses.

Supporters say House Bill 5 would decrease dropouts, letting students take more meaningful vocational classes that will prepare them for jobs after high school if they decide against college.

“I believe this is good policy. I think most people in Texas believe this is good policy,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said after his bill passed following nearly nine hours of discussion.

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The legislation would end the three-tiered diploma system that kept some students on the lowest level from being admitted into most colleges.

All students now would have to complete a “foundation” curriculum that includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.

Students could add on “endorsements” by taking courses in a speciality: business and industry; science, technology, engineering and math; public services; arts and humanities; or a mixture. Those students also would have to take a fourth math class, meant to raise the rigor, under an amendment from Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Students who complete an endorsement and take four years of science and math, including Algebra II, would meet the “distinguished” standard.

The Statesman notes the main issue debated during the daylong discussion of this bill, led by Rep. Mark Strama, who was one of only two votes against it.

A bipartisan coalition of members led by Strama argued that the state would be backing away from the rigorous requirements that have produced results, particularly among low-income and minority students, in the name of giving students flexibility.

“Every conversation I’ve had for months has revolved and swirled around this issue,” Aycock said.

Under current law, the 4×4 curriculum is the default graduation plan for all students unless they opt for a minimum plan requiring fewer credits for graduation that doesn’t qualify the student for a four-year college.

Strama put forth an amendment that would make the default plan under House Bill 5 the “distinguished diploma,” which is close to the 4×4 plan and a prerequisite to qualify for automatic college admission under the state’s top 10-percent law.

The distinguished diploma requires four years of science and math, including Algebra 2, rather than the three years called for in the “foundation diploma.” Algebra 2 is seen by many educators as a key indicator of whether a student is ready for college.

“We should assume all of them want a college prep curriculum and are capable of it, and let them decide if they don’t,” Strama said.

Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, signed on to Strama’s amendment and said he was concerned that looser requirements might be sending the state in the “slightly wrong direction,” away from ensuring students are prepared for the 21st century economy.

Forcing students to choose between an upper and lower track would stigmatize the foundation diploma as the lesser option when that isn’t the intention, said Aycock and his allies.

“It would have all these students have to admit at the very beginning of school: ‘I can’t hack this. I have to drop down to a lower level in order to get through high school,’” state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said of Strama’s amendment.

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, Strama’s amendment was set aside on a 97-50 vote.

Bill McKenzie, for one, heartily approved of Strama’s amendment. Strama explains his No vote here, and it’s worth your time to read it.

In a preview story, the Trib expanded on these concerns.

Over the past several years, Texas has had “significant gains among all students, especially those of low income backgrounds,” in college and career preparation, said Sonia Troche, the Texas regional director of La Raza. “What they are doing now is actually helping.”

Primary among the concerns of opponents like Troche is a provision that would do away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and then they would earn “endorsements” by completing five credits in areas of study like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, or business and industry.

The array of choices available to students could prove difficult to navigate for low-income and minority students whose parents are not acquainted with the system because of language or educational barriers, Troche said. Under the current plan, the default is a diploma that requires all of the courses needed for college readiness. The proposal would also reduce the number of end-of-course exams students must from 15 to five total tests, one each in reading, writing, biology, algebra I and U.S. history.

“To a family that may not know all the details, they might think their son or daughter just graduated from high school and are now eligible for college,” Troche said. “But, in fact, if they did an endorsement type of program and graduated from high school but didn’t complete all the required courses, they would have a high school diploma, but would not ready to go to college.”

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State education officials like Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams have joined Shapiro and Troche in sounding an alarm about the proposed changes.

Paredes said in a February interview that even if there are currently high-paying jobs in fields that do not require post-secondary education, the job opportunities for those without a college degree continue to dwindle.

“There’s an increasing amount of information that suggests career technical education is going to be done increasingly in two-year institutions, because once again, the demands of advanced manufacturing jobs and high skilled industrial jobs are growing,” he said.

High school, Paredes said, needs to prepare students to be successful in that setting.

At a Senate hearing Monday, Williams said he would recommend the number of required end-of-course exams to be reduced to eight — three more than under the HB 5 plan in either geometry or algebra II, world history or geography, and chemistry or physics. In remarks delivered around the state, he also said he does not support moving away from the 4X4 curriculum.

See Burka for more on that. I don’t agree much with the Texas Association of Business, which has been among the most stalwart supporters of the STAAR tests, to the point of hostage taking, but this is a valid concern, and it tracks with what I’ve been hearing from people who actually work in schools. Raise Your Hand Texas on the other hand seems pleased with HB5. I’m not sure what to make of all this just yet.

Rep. Harold Dutton knows what he makes of it.

No Child Left Behind, and its precursor Texas system, was created to make sure that, well, no child was left behind. But to Dutton’s way of thinking, no version of accountability, past to present, has touched the lives of African-American males in the Texas school system. So Dutton, being Dutton, proposed our accountability system be based solely on the progress of African-American males.

Aw, ever the jokester, that Dutton. On the floor, near the tail end of yesterday’s debate, Dutton talked about the dominance of African-American males in the state jails, county jails and the probation system.

“What’s the one thing they have in common, other than their race? You know what that one thing in common is?” Dutton asked from the front microphone of the House. “The TEAMS test didn’t help them. The TAAS test didn’t help them. The TAKS test didn’t help them. The end-of-course exams didn’t help them, and the reality is that House Bill 5 is not going to help them, either, unless we do something about it.”

And Dutton’s idea of doing something about it would be to judge school districts by how they teach the children on the bottom rung of academic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get a lot of support in the House.

Not a lot of big-money lobbyists for that, I’m afraid.

The Observer tracked the amendments that were proposed for HB5.

The amended bill includes new requirements that STAAR tests be given later in the year—no sooner than the third week of May—and that copies of the test be released annually instead of every three years. (Strama introduced both of those.)

Amendments approved back-to-back by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) would bar anyone working for a test contractor like Pearson from making political contributions or serving on advisory committees for the state. The amendments appear targeted at Pearson lobbyist Sandy Kress, who serves on a Texas Education Agency committee on accountability.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) tacked on an amendment limiting the benchmark tests school districts can give to two benchmarks per STAAR test. The House also approved his amendment that requiring a review of the bill’s effects on graduation rates and college readiness.

Villarreal said he supports HB 5 because he’s seen how vocational opportunities help students in his district. He said some students who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in school get to see how classroom concepts apply to the real world, and find high-paying jobs after graduation.

Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) voted for the bill, but tried in vain to add protections for rural students in small schools, who she worried wouldn’t have enough course options to finish one of the “endorsements” required for a distinguished diploma.

“My concern is that we have created a plan that is not available, not attainable to all students,” Patrick said. Some representatives suggested distance learning would solve that problem.

Strama sparked the day’s toughest debate around noon, with a proposal to make the college-ready “distinguished” path the default for students, reflecting concerns from higher ed leaders and some Latino and African-American members that HB 5 would leave too many minority students unprepared for college. Strama’s amendment failed, and he eventually voted against the bill.

After the vote, Strama told the Observer that while there are many issues with standardized testing in Texas, the problems are with the execution of the tests and not with the number of end-of course exams.

“I’m afraid that in the upper level coursework we’re going to have wildly varying degrees of rigor and achievement across the state,” he said. “It is more important than ever that we measure kids with one yardstick.”

As the state’s low-income population continues to grow, Strama said it’s more important that students in poor schools are held to the same tough standards as all students.

“If we can’t get those kids to pass these tests, we’re going to pay a high price, and saying they don’t have to pass the test isn’t going to solve the problem,” Strama said.

Here’s a press release from Rep. Villarreal on his amendments. Like I said, I’m still thinking about all this. To say the least, it’s a big and complicated subject, and I don’t claim any particular expertise. I am certain that there will be differences with the Senate bill, and there will be much horse-trading in conference committee. Reducing the number of exams, and aligning them with college admissions makes sense to me. Providing viable alternate paths to high school graduation that prepare kids for a professional career and aren’t viewed as lesser achievements is a good idea, too. I feel confident that whatever we do this session, we’ll be revisiting it next session, and likely again after that.

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4 Comments

  1. [...] best run down of what happened on Tuesday when the Texas House debated HB 5 come from Kuff, House passes major changes to testing and graduation requirements. (Be sure and read the post it has many links). Like I said, I’m still thinking about all this. [...]

  2. [...] sure she’ll be glad to hear there will be one less test next year. The House had previously passed a bill limiting the number of end of course exams in high school, reducing it from 15 to 5. I think this [...]

  3. [...] HB5, and here’s what I wrote about the House passage of it. The main points of contention were about the algebra II requirement [...]

  4. [...] standardized testing and revamp the high school curriculum, was amended by the Senate after being passed by the House, and is now in conference committee after the House rejected the Senate’s [...]

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