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State Exams May Delay Graduation for Some Students in 2015

Almost 20 percent of rising high school seniors in Texas are at risk of not earning their diplomas on time because they haven't passed one or more of five required exams.

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Almost 20 percent of rising high school seniors in Texas — the first to graduate under a new, more rigorous state testing regime — are at risk of not earning their diplomas on time because they have yet to pass one or more of five required exams. 

In 2013, the Legislature dramatically scaled back state testing, dropping the number of required exams from 15 to five in part because of fears too many students would fail to graduate. The state also delayed plans last August to raise passing standards on the exams — standards that were lowered during the transition to the new assessments to allow schools time to adjust — when scores had not improved as expected three full years into the roll-out.

But even with the lower bar, about 55,000 students in the class of 2015 face retaking at least one exam in the five subjects needed to graduate: algebra, English I, biology, U.S. history and English II. By comparison, this year, just under 9,000 students were denied diplomas because they could not pass. Those students were among the last group required to take the older standardized exams to graduate. 

“It is a huge concern because if [rising seniors] don’t graduate on time, and you can’t get them over the hump by summer school, do they re-enroll in high school?” asked Thomas Ratliff, a Republican who sits on the State Board of Education. “And if they do, does the state of Texas have the money to pay for a bump in enrollment?”

When the Texas Education Agency announced this testing data in June, Education Commissioner Michael Williams praised the results, noting that 80 percent of students in the class of 2015 “face no state-mandated tests during their senior year.”

“With that academic success in hand, superintendents can now focus remediation efforts on the fewer than 20 percent of students still in need of passing end-of-course exams while ensuring that all students can graduate and achieve beyond high school,” he said.

State law requires school districts to administer exams up to three additional times for students who do not pass the first time. Of the students in the class of 2015 who need to retake exams, a little less half need to retake more than one.

The English II exam, typically taken at the end of sophomore year, has been the biggest stumbling block for students. Many students in the class of 2015 are also the last required to take separate reading and writing exams in English I and II, which lawmakers combined into single exams in English I and English II as part of the 2013 testing changes. By December 2013, after two opportunities to retake the exam, about 22 percent of students had still not passed, despite a rule passed by Williams that let more than 34,000 students who failed either the reading or writing test in English II pass if they had a high enough combined score on reading and writing.

The class of 2015 is not alone in its struggles with the English II exam. In the latest administration this spring, which would have largely included students set to graduate in 2016, 73 percent of students passed exam on the first try. That figure drops to 62 percent among economically disadvantaged students and 68 percent among Hispanics — two groups that make up the majority of public school students in the state.

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