Texas public school students entering the fifth and eighth grades this fall have received what may amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card on their end-of-year state math exams.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced on Friday that because it's the first year of transition to new curriculum standards, the state would suspend a law that requires fifth- and eighth-graders to pass the exams to advance to the next grade level.
While the waiver was officially announced Friday, Williams advised school districts in a letter in May that they should use other "relevant academic information to make promotion or retention decisions" in math for the upcoming year.
"There are substantial challenges associated with implementation of the revised mathematics statewide curriculum standards in the STAAR grades 3-8 assessments,” he said at the time.
Students will still take the math exam, but they will not be prevented from graduating if they do not pass. Last year, just under 40 percent of eighth-graders and 45 percent of fifth-graders passed their state math exams on the first attempt. Under the so-called social promotion law, they can retake the exam up to three times before they are ultimately held back.
This is the second time in the last three years that Williams has suspended the requirement. The first came in 2012, when it was waived to ease the transition into a new state assessment system. Williams put it back in place in 2013.
The news comes as the Texas Education Agency has also further delayed a scheduled phase-in of higher passing standards for the new state exams, known as STAAR. If the higher standard was in place last year, according to TEA data, just 14 percent of fifth-graders and 9 percent of eighth-graders would have passed the math exams on the first try.
“While I firmly believe that our students are capable of reaching the high expectations reflected in the TEKS and the STAAR performance standards, moving to a three-step phase-in plan gives educators additional time to make the significant adjustments in instruction necessary to raise the level of performance of all Texas students,” Williams said in a statement on Thursday announcing the decision.
Critics have said both decisions only enable poor academic performance.
“The pressure is now off of our students, teachers and administrators to ensure our students pass these tests, despite the fact that the future academic success of our students depends on them learning this material,” Bill Hammond, the CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said in a statement released after the TEA announcement Friday. “We shouldn’t continue to allow our children to be promoted if they cannot show proficiency at grade level in mathematics. The standard needed to pass these tests is already very low and the commissioner has just lowered that passing standard to zero. This is another example of going back on high standards, even if it is just for this school year.”