Updated, 5:55 p.m., April 16:
After a day of testimony in the Senate Education Committee, comprehensive legislation reducing state standardized tests and restructuring high school graduation requirements has now cleared its first hurdle in the upper chamber.
Senators voted out House Bill 5, which recently passed the full House, after substituting much of its language with that of Senate bills the committee had already approved. In addition to dropping the number of state exams students must take to graduate from 15 to five, in biology, U.S. history, algebra I, and English I and II, the legislation changes current diploma standards that require four years each in math, science, English, and social studies.
Van de Putte, citing concerns about the possibility of fewer low-income and minority students completing college preparatory curriculum under the new proposal, offered an amendment that would require four years of math, science, and English and three years of social studies to graduate. Similar to the graduation standards currently in place, she said it would include more course options for students to complete those requirements.
The Texas Senate Education Committee chairman had choice words Tuesday for those who believe the state is "dumbing down" its high school graduation standards.
As he opened a hearing on proposed changes to diploma requirements, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, slammed The Washington Post and The New York Times for critical coverage of a push at the state Legislature for more flexible diploma requirements and fewer high-stakes exams.
"Since when does Texas worry about what The Washington Post and New York Times editorial board thinks about our legislation?" he asked. "Maybe the Legislature should just go home and let The New York Times represent the House and The Washington Post represent the Senate." (Disclosure: The Texas Tribune has a content partnership with The New York Times.)
Patrick also singled out the testing lobby for attempts to obstruct its passage. "Their mission is to create as many tests as they can and then grade them at as little cost as possible," he said, adding that if the measure did not pass, "everyone will know who killed it."
Senators are hearing testimony Tuesday on House Bill 5, which does away with the state’s so-called 4X4 graduation plan, which requires four years of courses in math, science, social studies and English. Instead, students would complete a “foundation” program with four credits in English, three in math, two in science, three in social studies and earn "endorsements" by completing five credits in areas like humanities, science, engineering, technology and math, and business and industry.
Speaking Monday night at a “tele-town hall” hosted by Empower Texans, Gov. Rick Perry said that he was in favor of keeping the 4X4 plan while also noting the national attention.
“I support the efforts to re-evaluate our state’s curriculum but we need to keep that 4x4, those four years of science, those four years of math, and protect the academic rigor that keeps our graduates able to compete in the global marketplace,” Perry said.
“The eyes of our nation are really focused on Texas, not just economically but also this education front. Take a look at The New York Times and Washington Post, who both in the last week have written about proposed changes to our curriculum. Texas is a leader in a lot of areas, and public education is one of them and we can not and will not go back on the progress that we made.”
HB 5 also significantly reduces the number of state standardized tests students must take, from 15 to five. Questions at Tuesday morning’s education committee hearing focused on whether the measure should require additional exams in advanced math and English courses, and if more of those advanced courses should be required for a high school diploma.
Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, offered an amendment, which has not yet been voted on, that would automatically place students in the college preparatory plan and allow them to "opt over" to a career-skills focused graduation plan if they earned low scores on their state standardized exams. It would also add a fourth year of math and science to core curriculum. She said it addressed concerns raised by national advocacy groups like LULAC and MALDEF that the legislation would hurt the academic achievement of low-income and minority students because they would not be encouraged to take the most rigorous courses.
"There's a way to have high-level math and science courses that are relevant to a career," she said.
The business community is divided on the legislation — a fact Patrick alluded to when he challenged the "misinformation" that a majority of Texas businesses are against it.
Some leaders, like Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond and Texas Institute for Education Reform Chairman Jim Windham, who both testified Tuesday, see it as backing off from hard-won accountability measures.
Windham said that it would be a "huge disservice" to the state if algebra I and English II became the highest level for state standardized exams, adding that all of the current 15 tests should continue to be administered and reported to the state, whether or not they were required for graduation.
"What gets measured gets done," he said.
But others, like Hector Rivero, the president of the Texas Chemical Council, favor the changes. Speaking on behalf of a coalition that represents 300,000 companies in the state, Rivero said, those companies couldn't find workers with the qualifications necessary to meet their high-paying jobs.
"The current education system while well-intentioned is not meeting needs of employers," he said.
Aman Batheja contributed reporting.