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Lawmakers Exploring Ways to Remove Graduation Hurdles

If roughly 47,000 high school seniors in December fail to pass the state exams required to earn a diploma, their last shot at graduating with their peers in the Class of 2015 may depend on the quick movement of state lawmakers.

Students in Yvonne McDaniel's English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class participated in English-language exercises during summer school at McCallum High School in Austin on July 31, 2013.

In December, roughly 47,000 high school seniors who still need to pass at least one standardized exam will have a final opportunity to clear a hurdle to their diplomas.

If they don’t, their last shot at graduating this spring with their peers in the Class of 2015 may depend on the quick movement of state lawmakers.

At the urging of educators and parents, lawmakers are exploring the possibility of allowing seniors who otherwise have completed their academic credits to graduate even if they haven't passed every standardized test, said state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who sits on the House Public Education Committee.

He said he was awaiting clarification from Texas Education Agency about the power of Education Commissioner Michael Williams to waive graduation requirements. If the commissioner, who has said he does not believe he has that authority, cannot address the issue, Huberty said, it may fall to the Legislature.  

“I’m sure somebody is going to take some action. If somebody doesn’t, I might,” Huberty said. “If they are passing all of their studies, and doing well on their ACT and SATs and we are saying if you don’t pass this one test, you can’t graduate, it’s kind of ridiculous.”

For most students in the class of 2015 — about 38,000 — that one test is English II.

After the 2013 Legislature dramatically scaled back state testing, dropping the number of required exams from 15 to five, this year’s high school seniors were caught in unusual circumstances. They entered high school late enough to be the first to earn diplomas under the reduced testing requirements, but not in time for a rule to take effect that combined separate reading and writing exams in English I and English II into a single exam in each subject. Because these students typically already had taken both English I and II at the end of their sophomore year, if they failed to pass either of those exams, they had to retake both parts of it in the new combined format.

As the first students to take the new assessments, their exams also included a large number of experimental “field questions,” which are used to develop future tests, said Cynthia Ruiz, a 10th grade English teacher in the Pflugerville Independent School District.

“They were essentially guinea pigs for the testing system that was not completely valid, considering how many field test questions and essays they had to write that didn’t count. They did a job and didn’t get paid for it. And the only way they are getting paid now is that they might not graduate,” Ruiz said. “To me that’s the most heartbreaking news that I’ve had to deliver. We basically used you for the system, and we are using it against you now.”

At a legislative hearing on the issue last week, Ruiz called on the state to admit “major mistakes” in the roll-out of the new exams — including delayed testing results and reports that lacked detailed feedback about which questions students had missed— and waive the English II exam as a graduation requirement for the class of 2015.

The push comes comes amid a larger conversation about whether the standardized tests serve any purpose. The state has twice delayed plans to raise passing standards — which were lowered during the transition to the new assessments to allow schools time to adjust — because scores had not improved as expected three full years into the roll-out. In August, Williams also waived a requirement that fifth- and eighth-grade students pass their state math exams to move on to the next grade level, citing the challenges involved with a statewide transition to new curriculum requirements. 

"I think the question that is appropriate to ask is, what does it mean if you pass the five end-of-course tests?  What does it tell you, as a taxpayer, if someone has passed those five tests? It says you've passed those five tests. But if you pass the ACT or the SAT, it says you learned something," said Drew Scheberle, the Austin Chamber of Commerce's vice president of education.

Scheberle, who added that the five end-of-course exams were "better than nothing," has called for the use of a single exit exam like the SAT or ACT or the state-developed Texas Success Initiative to measure students' mastery of curriculum. 

At her campus, Ruiz said, there are 75 seniors — most of whom have already taken the test two to five times already — who still need to pass English II to graduate. More than half of them, she said, have all other requirements in place to get their diplomas.

Describing students retaking the test who “wouldn’t so much as sit up or put a pencil in their hands” for the full five hours of its administration, Ruiz said that in her experience the more times students sit for the exam without passing, the more likely they are to “just start checking out.”

She said that for seniors who do not pass the test in December, she feared that would mean dropping out of school entirely — despite her efforts to encourage them by explaining what might happen at the state Capitol. 

“They know that changes are happening," she said. "They just aren’t happening fast enough."

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