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Changing Tack, Business Leaders Now Favor Tweaks to Testing System

Business leaders said Wednesday that they would support modifications to the new student assessment system implemented this spring — and put forth a plan that provides multiple pathways to high school graduation.

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Texas business leaders said Wednesday that they would now support modifications they had previously opposed to graduation and testing requirements in the accountability system implemented this spring. They also put forth a plan that provides multiple pathways to graduation, including one that focuses on business and industry.

Calling their plans a constructive response to widespread criticism of the state's new student assessments, leaders from the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Institute for Education Reform and the Texas Business Leadership Council recommended letting local school districts determine how end-of-course exams factored into students' final grades, reducing the number of exams they must pass to graduate and providing different ways to earn a high school diploma.

Despite its high-profile backers, the proposal does not have the full support of the business community. Missing from Wednesday's conference was the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Senior Vice President Drew Scheberle said the new proposal reduces the already low expectations students must meet to get high school diplomas — something he said would threaten their ability to compete for top-quality jobs.

"It's trying to solve the wrong problem," he said. "The problem I'm hearing from parents is too many tests, poor communication, not enough flexibility in courses. You can solve those problems and not sacrifice preparing kids for college and career."

The leaders present Wednesday acknowledged the announcement represented a change from the position they took at a news conference six months ago, when they emphasized their opposition to any changes to the system that was established by House Bill 3 in 2009. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said then that they would "vigorously oppose additional money for the public school system" until they were certain that the current accountability system would be maintained. During the last legislative session, an attempt by outgoing House Public Education chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, to make some of the changes now supported by the three groups failed in the Senate with the opposition of the business community.

But on Wednesday they laid out a plan that Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham said was the result of a six-month-long "listening tour" across the state where they heard the concerns of educators, business leaders and elected officials.

"HB 3 quite honestly overdid it a little bit," Hammond said. He added that the new proposal maintained the high standards in the legislation that would ensuring the state's students would be prepared for the workforce.

The announcement comes after high-level support for doing away with a rule that required new end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of high school students' final grades. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick all came out in favor of either delaying its implementation or eliminating it entirely. Patrick has filed legislation that would permanently leave the decision up to local school boards.

The rollout of the new assessment system this spring produced widespread confusion among school districts and concern from parents and lawmakers about the logistics of its implementation. In response to the backlash, more than 800 school boards have passed a resolution against high-stakes testing, saying that it is “strangling our public schools.”

This week, during testimony in the school finance trial against the state, a TEA official said that the agency is recommending lowering the performance threshold on the state standardized tests that students must reach to be considered college-ready. To be finalized, the state's commissioner of higher education must also agree on the change.

Only 3 percent of ninth grade students who took the English I end-of-course exams — and 17 percent who took the Algebra I exams — for the first time this spring met the current "advanced" standard to be college-ready. Under the new rule, students who meet the "passing" standards will be considered prepared for college by the state's definition, which determines whether they must take a placement exam evaluating whether they need remediation before entering college.

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