Texas House Votes to Reduce State Exams in Lower Grades

Updated, 2 p.m.:

A measure taking aim at the firm that develops the state's standardized tests briefly stalled legislation reducing high-stakes exams for elementary and middle school students on Tuesday, before it finally passed the Texas House.

When House Bill 2836 came up for final passage, state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, resurrected a revised version of his amendment from the day before that would require Texas to contract only with  U.S.-based testing companies. This time, it gave school districts the option to replace the state-developed STAAR exams with national tests like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, SAT, PSAT or ACT.

"This gives you a chance to go home and say you did something about the tests that everyone hates so much," Lavender told his colleagues. 

As lawmakers move to revamp the state’s standardized testing program in response to outcry from parents and school leaders, Pearson, the publishing giant that holds a five-year, $468 million contract through 2015 to provide the state assessments, has become an increasingly popular target

On Tuesday, they denounced the company's foreign base of operations.

"We have a chance to make history, to say we will not let a company that is based in a country not in our own to write tests for our children," said state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville. "I think we should be Texas first or if possible America first, not England, or not any other country that has no interests in Texas."

Based in London, Pearson has branches around the world, including in the U.S., where it employs 20,000 people — 1,800 of whom are in Texas, a spokeswoman said.

House members ultimately withdrew the amendment after Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, told them it would open the door for a transition to common core standards, which are aligned with the national tests.

Though he said he recognized their eagerness to "stick a finger in the eye" of the current test vendor, he explained that in doing that, they would be "saying it's okay for common core standards."

State Rep. Alma Allen, the Houston Democrat who serves as the committee's vice chairwoman, pointed out that lawmakers would also be throwing away the millions of dollars the state has already spent in developing its own curriculum standards separate from the common core — and narrow the pool of companies that could competitively apply for the state contract.

In the end, Lavender pulled down his amendment.

"We've sent a message that what we're doing is not working and we want something better for the children of our state," he said. "I never intended to do any harm to this bill, and this amendment may cause problems."

HB 2836 now goes to the Senate.

Original Story, April 29:

Legislation reducing the number of high-stakes exams in elementary and middle school — and the time younger students must spend sitting still to take them — won the tentative approval of the Texas House on Monday.

House Bill 2836, by state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell, eliminates fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests and requires exams at lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students can complete them in two hours or less. It would also prohibit schools from giving more than two in-district benchmark preparation tests per state exam.

The measure passed on voice vote with no debate. An amendment from state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, which failed, would have required the state to use the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills instead of the exams developed through a state contract with Pearson, a publishing and assessment company headquartered in London. 

Lavender said his amendment would have an "an American company doing our tests, not an English company."

Ratliff rejected the amendment, saying that while other bills progressing through the Legislature focused on the state's testing contract, his did not.  

The No Child Left Behind Act's accountability requirements, which tie federal funding to 14 exams in grades three through eight, have hamstrung attempts at reducing testing for younger students beyond what Ratliff proposes. An initial version of his bill also dropped an eighth-grade social studies exam, but that was added back on the floor at the request of state Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, who cited the importance of assessing students' knowledge of U.S. history. 

Elementary and middle school students in Texas currently take a total of 17 state exams before they enter high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, and there are additional exams in science, writing and social studies, depending on the grade.  

The lower chamber has already approved legislation focused on limiting state standardized exams in high school. That bill awaits consideration in the Senate.

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