Photo by Sameer Vasta/The Texas Tribune
More than 6,000 Texas high school seniors were able 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. (With more than 313,300 total graduates, the class was 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 12,077 seniors who had not passed exams after two attempts were referred to a graduation committee last year and that the panels cleared 6,279 of them for graduation — about 52 percent. (Data for the Class of 2016 is not yet available.)
That’s far lower than the percentage of 5th and 8th graders who are promoted to the next grade level by similar panels — the vast majority of whom are approved. Students in those grades are supposed to pass math and reading exams before advancing — 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.
Critics of the legislation, which is set to expire if legislators do not renew it next year, warned last year that the newest graduation committees would advance seniors at rates similar to that of 5th and 8th graders, passing them even when it wasn’t appropriate. That would weaken student performance and college and career readiness, they argued.
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, conceded the percentage of graduates is lower than initially feared but said that “even 1 in 2 is too many.”
“We’re very disappointed that so many students are allowed to graduate without even very basic skill levels,” he said.
But bill proponents and stakeholder groups say the data indicates that the special panels did not abuse their newfound discretion.
“I think it shows that districts were careful and cautious and are paying close attention when they form these committees and not just passing every kid,” said Casey McCreary, assistant executive director of education policy at the Texas Association of School Administrators, a nonprofit group that represents educators.
Under the legislation, graduation committees have to consider multiple factors related to students’ academic success, including grades in relevant coursework and overall attendance rate.
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 those who were allowed to graduate 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 test students are having the most difficulty with is English II, with nearly 39 percent of the 6,279 graduates failing only that exam.
Ideally everyone would have graduated last year, Vierra said, “but if local committees decided that only 50 percent were truly ready to graduate, then I believe in that data.”
“This is a local control issue,” said Vierra, also a trustee for the Houston-area Spring Branch school district. “I believe in local control. I believe ISDs and principals know best what their students need.”
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.
Author: Kiah Collier – The Texas Tribune