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Jack Buxkemper is among a group of Texas high school students who can claim a dubious distinction.
A rising junior in Ballinger Independent School District, he will have taken standardized exams in more subjects than any of his older or younger classmates by the time he graduates. He had what many parents, including his own, would call the misfortune of being in ninth grade during the spring of 2012, the year the state rolled out a rigorous, controversial — and now discontinued — end-of-course exam policy.
The policy was a result of a testing system lawmakers approved four years ago, with the aim of increasing school district accountability and students’ preparation for college. But widespread backlash from parents and educators over its rocky rollout last spring led lawmakers to scale it back during the most recent legislative session.
"It's very rare that you see an idea catch on and spread like wildfire across an entire state," House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said in July as he addressed the State Board of Education on the legislative changes.
Under House Bill 5, students entering high school this fall will take 10 fewer state exams than their classmates two years ahead of them. The old law required 15 state standardized exams to graduate. Now, students will need to pass only five.
"I'm glad for them," Buxkemper, 16, said of his younger classmates who won't have to face the same number of tests. "It wasn't fun for us, and it wouldn't have been fun for them, and I'm glad they have a chance to move on and do different things."
The legislation also made changes to the curriculum required for a high school diploma. It did away with standards that required all students to take four years of math, science, English and social studies unless they opted for a “minimum” diploma plan. Now, all high school students will take a foundation curriculum that includes four English credits and three credits each in science, social studies and math. Most will then go on to earn fourth credits in math and science, along with other required coursework, when they select a diploma "endorsement" in one of five areas: science and technology, business and industry, public services, humanities or a multidisciplinary option.
Because those changes take effect in the 2014-15 school year, 11th-grade students like Buxkemper are unlikely to take advantage of the endorsement options.
But they will get some relief from testing requirements under the new law. Though Buxkemper was tested during his freshman and sophomore years in subjects that under HB 5 will no longer be required, he’ll no longer have to sit for state exams in algebra II or English III.
"Now that it's changed, it's made it easier for people to work and not have to worry about learning the test specifically; you are able to actually learn daily skills that you need to use," he said.
The bill also limited the number of benchmark exams a district can offer during the school year, a practice that was intended to gauge students’ progress but that educators said could mean too much classroom time devoted to testing.
Despite sweeping changes to high school testing requirements, the legislation brought no respite from standardized exams for elementary or middle school students beyond the restrictions on benchmark testing, which apply to all grade levels.
Kathi Thomas, whose daughter will soon enter seventh grade at Dripping Springs Middle School, is among the parents who urged lawmakers to address the issue for younger students. They suffer just as many negative effects from over-testing, she argued.
Thomas said her daughter cried when she told her that the Legislature had “failed to give even a shred” of testing relief to students in lower grades. She is now considering transferring her to a private school for eighth grade.
"We were so hopeful, and thought that even if they just shortened the tests, it would be helpful," she said. "When we got nothing, it just broke her heart and broke mine, too."
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