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Texas Seeks Waiver From Feds on Test Exemptions

On the heels of a significant reduction in the number of required end-of-course tests in Texas high schools, Lone Star State education officials are awaiting word from the U.S. Department of Education on their plan to reduce the number of tests high-performing elementary and middle school students must take.

The plan is based on House Bill 866, which was introduced by GOP Rep. Dan Huberty, passed the legislature, and was signed by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. It would exempt students in the 3rd and 5th grades who achieve a minimum scale score on reading and math accountability tests (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR) from being required to take those tests again in the 4th, 6th, and 7th grades. But the bill, even though it's been signed by the governor, requires clearance from Washington before it goes into effect. The provisions of the new law are set to take effect no later than Feb. 1, 2015, but wouldn't impact the 2013-14 academic year.

In a July 17 letter to the federal Education Department explaining its request to waive the testing requirements outlined above, Commissioner of Education Michael Williams wrote: "During the legislative session, the authors expressed their belief that this legislation would allow high-performing students to focus their time and energy on learning new material and not [focus] every year on a test where there is a high likelihood that they would demonstrate success."

A spokesman for the Texas Education Agency, Gene Acuna, told me the state isn't sure how many students will be affected by the testing waiver if it's approved, or how many would have been impacted if the law had been in effect for the 2012-13 academic year. If approved, the new law wouldn't affect testing requirements in other subjects.

This waiver request, by the way, is separate from the waiver the state is seeking from certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, Acuna told me. He said that while the state's NCLB waiver is in the "final hours, final stages" of being resolved, the waiver request from Texas based on HB 866 is in its opening act, and that the state hasn't heard yet from the feds about it.

"From our experience, we know that it is very time-intensive to apply for a waiver," Acuna said.

When he wrote about the bill last month, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News noted that it could be a complicated process to determine the exact cut-off score for students to be exempted from some of the tests, and that the state may set that score so high that very few students would be exempted from the tests in question. He also said House Bill 866 could complicate accountability for schools and districts: "How happy do you think schools and school districts will be to have their highest-achieving students pulled out of those STAAR tests, when the results of those tests are still used as the primary tool for grading the performance of those schools and districts?"

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