*Clarification appended

In Texas’ biggest school districts, most students who applied for an alternate path to graduation after not passing all their exit-level tests were granted a diploma because of a new state law, according to a study by one of the law's biggest critics.

The Texas Association of Business surveyed the state's 100 largest districts; among the 78 that responded, an average of 86.4 percent of students who applied were able to graduate without passing all their tests, the group announced Thursday.

“We think that is a shockingly high number, effectively that the high school diploma for those kids means little or nothing, and they will not be ready to succeed in life,” Bill Hammond, CEO of the association, said at an Austin press conference.

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Senate Bill 149, by Sen. Kel Seliger, R- Amarillo, lets high school seniors graduate without passing all five state exams, if they meet certain requirements. The bill became law in May and took effect immediately, so seniors in the class of 2015 could request exemption. 

The law — which overwhelmingly passed the Legislature and will expire in two years if lawmakers opt not to renew it — was intended to provide otherwise qualified high school students a way to graduate if their performance on state standardized exams are the only obstacle preventing it. Seliger proposed the legislation in response to concern from parents and educators over the validity of the state exams as a measure of students' academic achievement. To earn a diploma under the alternate route, a student must be cleared by a panel made up of teachers, counselors, and parents, who consider factors like grades, college entrance exam scores, and attendance. 

During the legislative session earlier this year, the Texas Association of Business criticized the measure, saying it would lead to students being unprepared for careers or higher education.

The association's study found that in the surveyed districts, 96 percent of the schools granted more than half of the exemptions allowed under the law. Twenty-three schools granted all requests for graduation.

“This is way beyond just giving a pass to someone who has a testing problem; this is letting the floodgates open and letting everybody through whether they’re proficient or not,” said Sandy Kress, a consultant at the George W. Bush Institute, who joined Hammond at the press conference.

Hammond said he hopes the Legislature does not extend the measure in the 2017 legislative session and that he would like to see tests that better indicate college readiness.

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Later on Thursday, Theresa Treviño, president of Texans Advocating For Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent organization that led the push for the legislation during the session, issued a statement questioning the business group's conclusions. 

The study's assumption that the state exams should be the sole measure of whether a student should graduate is a fallacy, Treviño said.

"There has been extensive testimony by parents, educators, students, and testing experts showing that the current cohort of tests is not an appropriate measure for high school graduation," she said. "Finally, we would expect to see a high percentage of students being approved by school committees. The reason is that these are students who have passed their classes and have met all of the other requirements to qualify under SB149 to appeal to a committee."

Morgan Smith contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

*Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that 86.4 percent refers to the average number of students by district who applied for an alternate path to graduation and were granted a diploma. 

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