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House Passes Controversial School Testing Bill [Updated]

A bill from state Rep. Rob Eissler modifying how end-of-course exams factor into graduation led House Republicans into a debate over how best to handle student testing during what one called "extraordinary times" in public education.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (L), R-Angleton, has words with state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, during debate on Eissler...

A bill from state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, modifying how end-of-course exams factor into graduation requirements got preliminary approval from the House today, but not before several Republicans registered their dissatisfaction with current student assessment policy.

The idea behind Eissler's bill is to provide a transition period for students as schools move from the TAKS to the STAAR tests — whose more rigorous standards some believe could lead to large numbers of students failing to meet graduation requirements. Right now, students can't graduate unless they get a certain cumulative score across all the year-end tests. Fifteen percent of their final grades is based on how well they do on those tests. HB 500 does away with those requirements, instead allowing districts to set their own policy on how end-of-course exams weigh in student assessment. Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said his bill was about "trying to get out of the micromanaging of school business from Austin" and vehemently denied accusations from his colleagues that it weakened school standards. 

Three amendments from state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, were adopted from the floor. One prevented double-testing for fifth and eighth grade students taking advanced courses. Another, in an allusion to this summer's Texas Projection Measure kerfuffle, specified that the Texas Education Agency could not use a projected achievement level to measure student growth. The last allows districts to opt into a pilot program to study whether students are "overtested." Hochberg said that there is "pretty clear data" that show that if students pass a test one year, they are more than likely to pass it the next. "If we know they are going to pass that test, why are we going to continue to test them?" he asked. (Hochberg's  HB 233, co-sponsored by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would implement this policy statewide.)

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, offered an amendment — which he withdrew after lengthy discussion —  that would tie 35 percent of state funding to student achievement. "Why do we insist on continuing to do testing ad nauseum but yet how we fund our schools has no impact on their funding?" he asked, adding that he took "offense to the fact that we come up here every two years and continue to beat the hell out of teachers with testing." 

Eissler called Bonnen's amendment a "high-stakes manuever" that "makes no sense." Teachers shouldn't be evaluated on the basis of a single test, he said, school districts shouldn't either.

The most drastic proposal came from state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman. His amendment — which did not pass — would have implemented a two-year delay on the roll-out of the STAAR tests and allow districts to choose whichever end-of-year assessment worked best for them. "It's time that we say enough testing, and enough testing all the time," Phillips said.

Some Republicans offered vocal opposition to Eissler's legislation. State Rep. Todd Smith, R-Bedford, said he felt "morally obligated to sound a loud alarm" about the bill, which he said would mark the first time the House passed legislation lowering standards for public schools, and represented a "major sea change" in the lower chamber's education policy. State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, when he announced that he would cast a protest vote against the bill, said he wanted to "see something better in public education" and would support instead a bill from state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, which, like Phillip's bill, offers a moratorium on all state testing.

Returning to the front microphone to speak in favor of the measure, Phillips characterized a vote against the bill as "voting to continue to scream loudly that testing is more important than students, that testing is more important than teachers."

The bill passed on second reading with a voice vote from the floor — with a single "nay" from Berman's direction. 

Updated: On Thursday, the bill passed the House on third reading with state Reps. Berman, Flynn, Smith, Stephani Carter, R-Dallas and Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, voting against it.

 

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