Texas senators started a debate Tuesday that will likely last for weeks as lawmakers try to decide how many standardized tests students must take to graduate from high school.
After the disastrous introduction of a new testing regimen last year, the Legislature is anxious to overhaul what parents, teachers, students and business leaders all consider a flawed system. Texas law currently requires some high school students to take 15 exams to graduate, though the state education commissioner has waved a requirement that exam results count toward 15 percent of the final grades in core courses.
Sen. Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Public Education Committee, laid out a proposal Tuesday to reduce the number of tests to either four or five, depending on what kind of diploma a student is pursuing. The tests also would no longer count toward students' grades -- something testing supporters had said was needed to make students take the exams seriously.
Patrick announced an ambitious schedule, aiming to move his bill out of committee and to the full Senate on Thursday. But fellow Republican Sen. Kel Seliger, of Amarillo, put on the brakes, pointing out that Patrick had shared the bill with his fellow lawmakers only an hour before the hearing.
The Houston lawmaker's bill also would allow students who graduate with only the most basic diploma to compete for admission to public universities, something not allowed under current law. Seliger said he was concerned that some students may avoid difficult courses and then apply for college under a law that grants the top 10 percent of every high school class admission to college and access to financial aid.
"The law is silent on this issue, and therein it is flawed," Seliger said.
As chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Seliger expressed concern that too many Texas high school students already are taking remedial classes in college and the change could put more stress on that system. He said high schools need an accountability and testing system that makes sure graduates are ready for college or a job upon graduation.
Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said he opposed loosening the testing standards because he believes they are the only way to improve schools. He said that according to ACT college aptitude tests, only 23 percent of high school graduates are ready for a career or higher education.
Parents and school officials, though, testified that while tests are necessary, they don't need to carry such high stakes. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he didn't mind students taking 15 tests, but agreed that a student shouldn't have to pass all of them to graduate.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, complained that the Legislature cut spending on programs to help disadvantaged students pass the test from $300 million to $50 million.
"Minority kids and socially-disadvantaged kids are normally at the bottom, and if there are going to be high-stakes exams, we should make certain these (programs) are there in order to assist them. To do otherwise would be a dereliction of duty," West said.
Every senator on the committee joined the discussion, and it became clear there was no consensus on what a final law should look like.
"Now you see why I wanted to start this process, because this is going to be a long discussion we're going to have," Patrick acknowledged.
Patrick's committee did approve a law that would ban Planned Parenthood from participating in sex education courses at public schools. Conservatives oppose the group because it supports abortion rights, but a small number of schools have used the group's materials for classes on birth control. The measure now goes to the full Senate.
"If legislators really want to stop abortions in Texas, then they should stop making it harder for school districts to teach students responsible sex education that helps keep them from getting pregnant in the first place," said Kathy Miller, president of the liberal Texas Freedom Network.