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Texas End-of-Course Exams Targeted for Rollback by Lawmakers

An ambitious set of high school graduation requirements for Texas would be dramatically overhauled under legislation to be considered today by the state's House of Representatives, including lowering from 15 to five the number of end-of-course exams most students must pass. The state tests for Algebra II, chemistry, physics, and English III, to name a few, could be skipped if the plan becomes law.

In addition, the measure would replace the state's "recommended" high school pathway for students planning to attend college—popularly known as the "4x4"—under which students must successfully complete four years of coursework in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. (The state's four-year colleges and universities require applicants to complete this program.) Instead, it creates a new "foundation" diploma with fewer specific course requirements, and allows students to earn specified "endorsements" such as for STEM or business and industry.

[UPDATE: (March 27, 10:40 a.m.) The Texas House gave tentative approval to the bill yesterday with apparently no changes on the issues of end-of-course exams or the revised graduation pathway. Here's a write-up by the Star-Telegram newspaper of Fort Worth.]

Advocates call the legislation a reasonable approach to reduce testing and hand students more flexibility in selecting high school courses. But critics, including some business leaders, argue that it represents a step backward from high expectations for students.

"The Texas House is poised to retreat on academic rigor," the Dallas Morning News wrote in an editorial published last week. "There's no other way to look at what would happen to our state's students if the House passes HB 5."

But Catherine Clark, the government relations director for the Texas Association of School Boards, describes the changes as a common-sense approach to rein in state requirements that have gone too far.

"What we have done to change public education in the last four or five years has gone overboard," she told me, "requiring students to take 15 end-of-course tests that count for graduation. That is just high-stakes testing gone wild."

And she said the changes to the high school diploma pathway makes it "more flexible for students to graduate and meet their own personal needs." She notes that with so many students trying to take four years of courses in math, science, social studies, and English, they find little time for other courses that may fit better with their interests and career plans.

"We're not softening expectations," she said, "we're trying to meet the needs of students."

(As it's been explained to me, the 4x4 program in Texas is essentially the "default" pathway to graduation for students, with 26 high school credits required. However, there is an "opt out" provision that allows a student—with written agreement from their parent and a school counselor—to instead pursue a diploma under the Minimum High School Program, which requires just 22 course credits and fewer high-level courses. In addition, there is a "distinguished" program that's seen as the most academically challenging pathway to graduation.)

The House bill up for consideration today would replace the 4x4 program (as well as the minimum and distinguished programs) with a "foundation" high school program that requires students to complete four credits in English, three in math, two in science (including biology, as well as integrated physics/chemistry or other "advanced" science courses identified in the bill) and three in social studies. In addition, students could earn "endorsements" by completing five credits in specific areas, such as STEM, business/industry, or humanities. And instead of having to pass 15 end-of-course exams to graduate, students would have to pass five such assessments, including for English I and II, Algebra I, biology, and U.S. history.

The lead sponsor of the House bill is Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the chairman of the House education committee. Similar legislation in the Senate, which also may be considered this week, is being championed by Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

The plans appear to have divided the business community. A coalition of industry trade associations, called Jobs for Texas, has urged support for the House bill.

Meanwhile, 16 business organizations and large companies, including the Texas Association of Business, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, ExxonMobil and Texas Instruments, sent a letter last week to members of the state Senate urging it to shift course.

"As representatives of business with major installations in Texas, we are very concerned about efforts to lower Texas high-school graduation requirements in math and science," the letter says. "Now is not the time to reverse progress when Texas needs a more skilled workforce to meet the demands of the 21st century economy."

The letter says that "rigorous graduation requirements in Texas are critical to helping more students enter and succeed in postsecondary education, which is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for 21st-century jobs."

But Mary Ann Whiteker, a superintendent for the 2,700-student Lufkin district, criticizes the 4x4 curriculum as a "one-size-fits-all approach." As for the 15 end-of-course exams, she said, "It's overwhelming. It truly is. Right now, under our current system, if you look at the days identified for testing and retesting, we are looking at 45 days of testing in the state of Texas, and our students only go 180 days. It's totally absurd."

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael L. Williams does agree that having 15 required end-of-course exams is too much, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman.

"There is widespread agreement that the current requirement ... needs to be changed," she told me. But the commissioner believes that cutting them back to five, as both the House and Senate bills as drafted would do, goes too far.

"The commissioner spoke out in favor of potentially eight tests, two per subject, for the four core subjects," she said.

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