The Texas Senate on Monday unanimously approved its version of a major high school curriculum overhaul, reducing the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate from a nation-leading 15 to five while allowing some to earn diplomas without taking upper-level math courses such as Algebra II.
The proposal approved in the upper chamber is similar to that passed previously in the House. They come amid a backlash against perceived over-testing by students, parents, teachers and school administrators. Critics worry, however, that Texas is retreating from the kind of tough classroom standards that helped push its students to make academic gains in recent decades.
Both versions will now have to be reconciled in conference committee.
"We're talking about one of the most important pieces of legislation, not just this session, but in any session," Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said after the vote. "I think it's going to give students the flexibility to follow their passion."
The original curriculum bill, sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, is designed to let some students focus on vocational training that would prepare them for high-paying jobs that don't require a college degree.
It would require passing state-mandated exams only in English reading and writing, Algebra I, biology and U.S. history. The Senate version also mandates just five exams in core subjects.
The House bill allowed students to earn a new base or "foundation" diploma to avoid taking Algebra II or other tough math and science classes, giving them more freedom to take career-oriented electives. The Senate proposal would require more students to take Algebra II and other tough courses but would also offer a "business and industry" course track, and other diploma options, letting youngsters avoid taking the hardest math classes.
But it also mandates four years of math and science, including upper-level courses, if students want to qualify for automatic admission to any public university in Texas -- a distinction those currently graduating in the top 10 percent of their classes already earn now.
Texas' 15 state-mandated exams are more than any other state. But the rollback has been cheered by education groups, which argue that standardized tests are too high-stakes and have too many accountability consequences for teachers, students and school districts.
Still, some business groups claim the efforts will water down curriculum and leave high school graduates ill-prepared for the workforce of the future. Bill Hammond, head of the powerful lobbying organization the Texas Association of Business, said he was disappointed in the bill.
"We already graduate only 25 percent of students who are career or college ready," Hammond said in a statement. "I don't understand why many of our lawmakers are dead set on running away from strong requirements meant to increase that number and put in place standards that will do just the opposite."
But Patrick, the Senate sponsor of Aycock's bill, said he had a letter from 300,000 businesses that support the bill, desperate for high school graduates with adequate vocational training.
"This will be, I believe at the end of the day, the most rigorous, the most flexible plan for the 5 million public school students of Texas in the country," Patrick said. "It is not a step down in rigor."
Higher education leaders are skeptical, though, pointing to studies that show a correlation between being able to pass Algebra II and succeeding in college and beyond.
The Senate on Monday also approved a new accountability rating system that replaces the current regimen ranking schools and districts from "exemplary" to "academically unacceptable." Instead, school districts would be issued letter grades A through F, which proponents say are easier for parents to understand. Schools would continue to be ranked using the old system.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams has already announced plans to begin rating both schools and districts using letter grades next year, but the Senate proposal would change that. Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West has said rating schools `F' could hurt property values in low-income neighborhoods.
He and Patrick vowed to keep the modified accountability scale in the curriculum bill through conference committee.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, tried unsuccessfully to require more students to take more-demanding math and science, saying she didn't believe that the new, curriculum standards were "as rigorous as what we have now."
Van de Putte said that she has heard from education professionals who said they worried that many poor or minority students in her district couldn't handle Algebra II and other tough math courses.
"I find that insulting," she said on the Senate floor. "Our kids can cut it, but only if we set that bar and we let them in."
The final Senate bill included a string of amendments, but the most-debated was a plan allowing parents and students to opt-out if their school districts choose to issue ID cards with electronic chips that track kids' whereabouts.
Some districts are already using the chips to better track student movement since state funding is based on average daily attendance.