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Senate panel weighs alternate graduation route for students who fail exams

The Texas Senate Education Committee heard Tuesday from supporters, and a few critics, of a bill that would make permanent a 2015 law that allows students to graduate even if they haven't passed their required exams by going before a graduation committee.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, discussed higher education issues during a Texas Tribune event on April 4, 2017. Seliger is chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. 

Testifying to a panel of senators Tuesday, Amarillo ISD Superintendent Dana West pulled out a school magazine and rattled off a list of high schoolers who failed required tests but graduated anyway due to a Texas law allowing them to go before a committee instead.

The examples included a student who got into a serious car accident and now is the only woman in her college welding program, and a Somalian immigrant who almost dropped out when he failed the required state English exam and who now is studying hard at a local college.

"We take this opportunity for our scholars very seriously," West said.

West joined a long line of supporters before the Senate Education Committee of Senate Bill 463, which would extend legislation allowing students like those to graduate as long as they meet the requirements of an "individual graduation committee" even if they fail required exams. Legislators voted to establish these committees in 2015, as part of a wave of legislation pushing back against high-stakes standardized testing. But the law included a clause that will cause it to expire in September.

SB 463, which would make the committees permanent, was left pending in committee Tuesday. Its companion in the lower chamber, House Bill 966, has not yet been heard.

The Texas Education Agency last week released data showing that almost 13,000 students in Texas were eligible to use an individual graduation committee during the 2015-16 school year. About 70 percent of those students actually graduated. The number who graduated, about 9,014, represented 2.8 percent of the total graduates that school year, according to the state agency's release.

Supporters of the bill, like West, argued their case based on the success stories of individual students who they said deserved to have high school diplomas in hand even if they tested poorly. The committees are made up of students' teachers, guardians and administrators, who ultimately determine whether students deserve to pass using metrics such as samples of work from classes related to the failed exam.

Critics argue it lowers the standards for all Texas students. "Continuing to lower the bar is not helping," said Drew Scheberle, vice president at the Austin Chamber of Commerce. "There are always going to be students who are right on the margin." He said educators should instead focus on moving more students above the bar.

"We're not doing this to get the kids out of school unless they should get out of school," said bill author Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, when introducing the bill. "Nobody at NASA took a STAAR test, and yet they muddled their way to the moon."

He rolled out a real-life example for Scheberle: Would he allow the graduation of a student in Flower Mound who failed to pass one required course in social studies?

"I would give her a GED if she earned it," Scheberle said, and then didn't budge even when Seliger laid out the kicker — that student now has a 3.6 GPA at Oklahoma Christian University.

Many supporters pointed out the bill was likely to help disadvantaged students, including those with dyslexia and those for whom English is a second language.

The bill "helps ensure students' success in school is not limited to a single test score," said David Hinojosa, of the Texas Latino Education Coalition. "This bill is working for all student groups across Texas."

Read related coverage here:

  • State Sen. Kel Seliger and state Rep. Dan Huberty have filed bills that would keep individual graduation committees, which allow students to graduate even if they fail required exams. The law creating these committees will expire in September.
  • Nearly 6,000 Texas high school students were cleared for graduation 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.
  • The roughly 28,000 public high school seniors who still need to pass a state exam to get their diplomas this May could get a lifeline from Texas legislators.

Disclosure: The Austin Chamber of Commerce has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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