Texas Mulls Pathway to Grad Day for Students Failing Standardized Tests

Two Texas legislators filed separate bills that would make permanent a 2015 law that provides temporary relief to high school seniors who do not pass all their standardized tests, yet allows them to graduate.

Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) filed S.B. 463 and Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston) submitted H.B. 966 to maintain graduation review committees set up by a short-term fix, S.B. 149, set to expire this year. S.B. 149 created another pathway for on-time high-school graduation to those seniors who did not pass two of the five mandated end-of-course (EOC) exams, better known as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

Under S.B. 149, students must pass their courses and show graduation preparedness before an individual graduation committee (IGC) comprised of teachers, principals, parents, and counselors who determine whether seniors, who failed two STAAR tests but met all other course requirements, can graduate.

In 2015, Seliger penned S.B. 149, and Huberty sponsored it. Governor Greg Abbott signed it into law, emphasizing: “While it is critical that the state appropriately holds public schools and districts accountable for delivering the best possible education, we must protect Texas students from being penalized as a result of evolving testing standards.”

The state swapped out its Texas Assessments of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) for the STAAR in 2011, then buckled up for a flat and sometimes bumpy ride over successive testing seasons. High numbers of public and charter schools measured as low-performing because of poor test scores while the new test remained in flux. Last year, a change in the state’s testing vendor wreaked havoc on administering the STAAR. It also intensified existing dissatisfaction with standardized testing.

In 2015, Seliger emphasized S.B. 149 was not meant to be an easy “out” for seniors, but a reform to encourage students who otherwise satisfied graduation requisites. In a prepared statement addressing his new bill, Seliger called extending S.B. 149 a provision for “deserving students who have passed all of their courses and demonstrated that they are prepared for college or the workforce will graduate from high school.” He stated that when used “judiciously,” S.B. 149 proves successful for “real life examples of students whose futures were ensured because they had the option of consideration by a graduation committee.”

On Friday, Huberty discussed his proposed legislation to continue review committees in a press conference. He shared Texas Education Agency (TEA) 2014-15 data that showed 12,077 high school students qualified for an IGC, of which, approximately 50 percent were recommended for graduation. The TEA reported 5,844 students graduated because of S.B. 149 that year.

He said: “We have given our schools one more tool for student success. It is our responsibility to extend this same option to future students.”

The five required STAAR exams for graduation are Algebra I, English I and II, U.S. History, and Biology. According to Huberty, the two that students tend to fail are English II or U.S. History, but they are otherwise successful in school and meet graduation requirements.

Public opinion varies on S.B. 149. Proponents applaud the alternative graduation route for seniors who are, otherwise, qualified students but do not perform well on high-stakes tests. Others may struggle because of learning disabilities or grapple with English. The state’s largest teacher organization, the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE), supported S.B. 149 as a “common sense approach to assessing a student’s actual progress,” not letting one test determine a student’s future, and also to move away from an over-reliance on standardized testing.

However, teachers unions generally oppose the STAAR. One metric in the Texas Teachers Evaluation and Support System (T-TESS) grades their effectiveness based on student test results. They, and the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), disapprove of the new A-F grading system which rates a school’s effectiveness as a measure of taxpayer accountability. Although A-F uses a varied basket of benchmarks, it still bases 55 percent of a school’s score on the STAAR.

In 2015, Bill Hammond, CEO of Texas Association of Business, was not sold on S.B. 149, fearing it would produce graduates less prepared for the demands of higher education or the workplace and minimize the value of a diploma. In September, he told the Austin American-Statesman students who fail the STAAR are being told they were successful in high school. He said “Nothing has been further from the truth. It’s a minimal standard at best, and yet after 12 or 13 years in school these kids are allowed to graduate without the rudimentary skills needed to be successful.”

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