Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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March 25, 2013

Coalition applauds graduation requirement overhaul

AUSTIN — A coalition of 22 industry trade organizations said Monday it strongly supports a bill to reduce standardized testing and increase emphasis on career training in high schools statewide, endorsing the high-profile proposal a day before the Texas House is scheduled to debate it.

Jobs for Texas, which says it represents 300,000 Texas employers and more than 6 million jobs, wrote to all 150 state representatives saying House Bill 5 "will give students greater flexibility to pursue their interests and will allow schools to develop relevant, up-to-date programs that reflect the demands of Texas employers."

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who chairs the chamber's Education Committee. So far, there has been relatively little public opposition to the bill, though scores of proposed amendments will make for a long day of discussions.

"Our students and their parents deserve more flexibility to choose courses that interest them and will prepare them to thrive in higher education and the workplace," the letter said. It urged House members to support the bill and follow Aycock's lead on voting for or opposing amendments.

The measure would reduce from 15 to five the number of standardized tests that high school students must pass to graduate, leaving exams only in English reading and writing, Algebra I, biology and U.S. History. It also modifies curriculum requirements so students can choose one of five coursework pathways to get a diploma.

"It gives the flexibility for kids who don't necessarily want to be a nuclear scientist to find a job," Aycock said, promoting his bill to a group of reporters last week.

Others, though, say the bill dumbs down curriculum. Former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, an ex-superintendent of Houston schools, is urging lawmakers to "say no to these kinds of efforts to lower the standards in Texas schools."

"Our children and our schools need high standards of learning, and abandoning strong accountability and assessment is wrong for Texas," Paige said in a statement Monday.

Similar concerns have been voiced by powerful lobbying group the Texas Association of Business and a collection of mothers around the state who oppose easing testing standards.

While advanced math and science would no longer be required to graduate, the bill lets students work toward a "distinguished" degree by completing Algebra II and an upper-level science course. Aycock says those who earn distinguished degrees would quality for admission into any public Texas university under existing laws which already call for automatically accepting the top 10 percent of each graduating class.

His plan comes amid a backlash against perceived "overtesting," with students, parents, teachers and school administrators complaining that schools place too much emphasis on high-stakes exams. But as recently as 2009, ensuring that public school curriculum standards were sufficiently demanding was important enough that the Legislature approved the law creating 15 standardized tests.

"We're trying to get it right. I hope we don't overcorrect," Aycock said.

Meanwhile, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams told a Senate committee Monday that he hopes lawmakers don't let the number of standardized tests fall below eight. He proposed combining currently separate reading and writing exams into a single test but giving it at the English I and III levels, while also requiring exams in Algebra I, biology and U.S. history for graduation.

Williams also said students should choose to take exams in either Algebra II or geometry, and pick between physics or chemistry and world history or world geography.

"What we test is what gets taught," he said.

Aycock's bill also would scrap the results on standardized high school exams counting 15 percent toward a student's final grade in core courses — a provision written into the 2009 law but never enacted. And it calls for a school accountability rating system based on letter grades rather than the current scale labeling schools from "Exemplary" to "Academically Unacceptable."

Aycock said that when the committee considered the bill before referring it to the full House, there were 103 witnesses and only three of them testified against it.


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