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State Exams Once Again Target of Texas Lawmakers

Texas lawmakers took aim at the state’s standardized testing system Thursday as they considered a proposal to allow high school seniors to graduate even if they fail state exams.

State Sen. Kel Seliger speaks about the 83rd legislative session with state Reps. John Smithee and Walter "Four" Price at West Texas A&M University in Canyon.

Texas lawmakers took aim at the state’s standardized testing system Thursday as they considered a proposal to allow high school seniors to graduate even if they fail state exams.

“It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s also insanity when you see the level of achievement these kids are already doing and yet they can’t even pass this test,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, whose panel was hearing testimony on the bill.

About 28,000 students in the class of 2015 — or about one in 10 high school seniors — still must pass one or more of the five required state exams in English I, English II, U.S. history, biology and algebra I.

Senate Bill 149 by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Armarillo, would allow districts to set up panels made up of educators, counselors and parents to weigh factors like grades, college entrance exam scores and attendance to determine whether a student should graduate despite failing state standardized exams.

Wanda Bamberg, the superintendent of the Aldine Independent School District, told senators she was “no longer comfortable” holding students back from graduating based on state exams because of doubts she had about the accuracy of their scoring.

She said about 390 seniors in her district still needed to pass a state exam to graduate, and estimated that the legislation would probably help at least 300 of them receive a diploma on time.

With the exception of the U.S. history exam, which usually comes at the end of the junior year, students have typically taken all the tests they need to pass to graduate by the time they finish their sophomore year. If they don't pass, they have a chance to retake the exams during during any of three additional testing periods each year until they graduate. In May, students in the class of 2015 will have one last chance to take exams they've failed. 

As they discussed the proposal, a few senators wondered whether it might dissuade students from performing well on state exams.

“I think it’s walking a fine line to disincentivize students from doing their best,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, after noting she approved of the intention behind the legislation.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, asked whether having a panel made up of educators who might be docked in school ratings if a student failed to graduate would be able to make an objective decision.

But Kolkhorst added that given the complaints, maybe state exams should be dumped altogether.

“How much do we spend on end-of-course exams? Maybe we should just throw those out and save the money,” she said. “If we are going to give a pathway where we don’t have to pass the end of course exams … I just say why do we need the end of course exams?”

The panel otherwise appeared largely in support of the measure, praising Seliger for bringing it forward. The bill will have to get the support of four-fifths of lawmakers in each chamber to bypass a ban on considering legislation in the first 60 days of the session to take effect in time for this year's seniors.

On Thursday, after Taylor acknowledged his intent to fast-track the bill to the floor, the committee left the bill pending.

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