*Correction appended

Nearly 6,000 Texas high school students were cleared to graduate in 2015 even though they didn't pass all of their end-of-course exams, according to data the Texas Education Agency posted online this spring but did not announce.

Their advancement was made possible by the Legislature’s overwhelming approval last year of legislation reducing the number of tests high schoolers must pass to receive a diploma. Senate Bill 149 is among several high-profile bills lawmakers have passed in recent years to ease the high-stakes nature of the standardized testing and accountability system they spent years making more rigorous and consequential.

Prior to passage of the legislation, students in the class of 2015 would have been required to pass five end-of-course exams to graduate: English I, English II, Algebra I, U.S. history and biology. Instead, they were able to walk the stage even if they had failed as many as two of the tests as long as they had passed all their coursework and a special “graduation committee” — made up of their principals, teachers, school counselors and parents — unanimously endorsed it.

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With more than 313,300 total graduates, the class had been the first group of seniors required to pass the array of exams to graduate; a 2013 law reduced the number of required end-of-course exams from 15 to 5.

State data quietly posted online in April shows that school districts formed 12,077 graduation committees last year and that the panels cleared 6,279 students to graduate during the 2014-15 school year. But at least some of the committees were formed for underclassmen or students who didn’t receive a diploma that year — and the education agency doesn’t know exactly how many because of the way it collected data from school districts. That means it’s impossible to know what percentage of seniors were actually allowed to graduate despite failing exams. (The agency has since revised its methods.) 

The share of students the graduation committees would clear for graduation became a major point of speculation during last year's debate over the legislation, which is set to expire if legislators do not renew it next year.

Critics warned that the panels would advance the vast majority of students, arguing it would greatly weaken student performance and college and career readiness. They pointed to similar panels formed to decide whether to promote 5th and 8th graders who have failed required state exams, which promote almost every student. Students in those grades are supposed to pass math and reading exams before advancing to the 6th or 9th grade — a requirement Education Commissioner Mike Morath waived last month after school districts reported numerous problems with the administration of this spring’s exams under a new testing vendor.  

Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, which backs high-stakes standardized testing and believes the current battery of exams is too easy, believes graduating even one student who has failed an exam is too many. 

"We're very disappointed that so many students are allowed to graduate without even very basic skill levels," he said, later adding that the education agency should have had complete data. 

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Late last year, the association released a survey of the state's 100 largest school districts indicating that graduation committees had advanced most seniors; among the 78 that responded, an average of 86.4 percent of students were able to graduate. 

Under the legislation, graduation committees have to consider multiple factors related to students’ academic success, including grades in relevant coursework and overall attendance rate. A project or portfolio may also be required. 

In lobbying for the bill, proponents pointed to numerous cases of otherwise high-achieving students who had been accepted to four-year universities or the military who would be forced to put their plans on hold because they hadn't passed a test that isn't even required for college admission. At the time the bill was passed, some 28,000 seniors were at risk of not graduating because they had failed at least one exam.  

“A single test shouldn't limit a student’s future,” said Chris Vierra, vice president of influential testing reform group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, which pushed for the legislation.

Of the 12,077 students who were approved for graduation last year, 63 percent had failed only one exam while 34 percent had failed two, the data shows. (The rest are shown as failing three or more, but an education agency spokeswoman said that is probably because they didn’t take all the tests as they transferred from another state or were exempt.) The exam the class of 2015 had the most difficulty with was English II, with nearly 39 percent of the 6,279 students cleared for graduation failing only that exam. 

The vast majority who were approved for a diploma — 4,265 — were Hispanic, followed by 1,121 African-American students, 645 white students, 179 Asian students and 36 multiracial students, the data shows. 

Data for the 2015-16 school year is not yet available.

Ideally everyone would have graduated last year, Vierra said, but it’s a matter of local control. 

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“I believe in local control,” said Vierra, also a trustee for the Houston-area Spring Branch school district. "I believe ISDs and principals know best what their students need.”

Correction: Because of incomplete information provided by the Texas Education Agency, a previous version of this story said that graduation committees formed last year approved about half of students to graduate during the 2014-15 school year. However, a portion of those panels considered underclassmen and those who didn’t graduate that school year. The education agency doesn’t know exactly how many, so it is impossible to give an accurate number. 

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and the Texas Association of School Administrators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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