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Bill Reducing Testing for Lower Grades Clears Senate

Elementary and middle school students will take fewer standardized exams under legislation approved by the state Senate on Tuesday — if Texas can get a waiver from the federal government.

Rep. Dan Huberty R-Humble, votes on one of the 165 amendments to House Bill 5 on March 26, 2013.

Updated, Wednesday, May 22, 9:15 p.m.: 

Elementary and middle school students will take fewer standardized exams under legislation approved by the state Senate on Tuesday — if Texas can get a waiver from the federal government.

Under House Bill 866 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, which passed the Senate on Tuesday night, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Senators approved an amendment on Tuesday night adding writing tests back in for fourth and seventh grades, meaning the House will have to sign off before the bill hits the governor's desk. 

Speaking to reporters after the legislation passed, Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, said that the governor was "very open-minded" about the bill when he and Huberty met with him earlier. The upper chamber approved the bill with only two no votes — Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

To avoid losing federal funding, the legislation would require state education officials to request an exemption under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires 14 exams in grades three through eight.

Elementary and middle school students currently take a total of 17 state exams before high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, and they take additional exams in science or writing or social studies, depending on the grade. 

More than 80,000 fifth graders and 60,000 eighth graders in the state are at risk of being held back this year because of poor performance on state standardized tests under a Texas law banning social promotion. They will have two opportunities to retake them in May and June before they are kept behind.

Efforts to reduce testing in lower grades have encountered opposition from critics, including the Texas Association of Business, who question whether the state could adequately measure student achievement without yearly exams. But the legislation has progressed with broad support in both chambers for rolling back high stakes testing in response to outcry from parents and educators about the effect of the state's testing regime on classroom instruction.

Another measure addressing testing in younger grades, HB 2836, has also passed the upper chamber. But not before the  Senate made significant changes to it. 

The bill, from Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell, originally eliminated fourth- and seventh-grade writing tests and required exams in lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students can complete them within two hours. The upper chamber's version instead orders a study of the state's curriculum standards and limits the number of benchmark exams school districts can administer locally.

When it passed the Senate Wednesday, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, added two of her bills that passed the Senate but ran out of time in the House — one is focused on testing for special needs students and another that requires the Texas Education Agency to audit the state's assessment contracts. 

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