AUSTIN — The Senate is poised to approve an exemption that could let thousands of high school seniors graduate from high school despite failing end-of-course exams.
It’s based on a plan used in lower grades. And there, the result has been that most students who cannot pass state exams face little or no consequences.
State law requires that students pass an exam in fifth and eighth grades to move to the next grade. But nearly 9 in 10 Texas students who failed the STAAR in the fifth and eighth grades were still promoted in the fall of 2013, state figures show, because of the waiver provision that senators want to copy for high school tests.
The Senate Education Committee has unanimously approved a bill by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, that would exempt most seniors who have not passed the five end-of-course exams required for graduation as long as they pass their classes and meet other criteria.
A small committee would be appointed for each student. If the committee members all agree, the student would graduate regardless of the test scores.
It’s the same system used in the lower grades. Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business and a former House member, predicted that the Senate proposal will lead to the same result.
“We are disappointed the Senate is going to effectively eliminate any substantive requirement for juniors and seniors to prove they are college- or career-ready when they graduate,” Hammond said. “The creation of these review committees will effectively reinstate social promotion. It also reduces the value of the diploma for all those who worked hard in school and proved their skills on these tests.”
Three of the five end-of-course tests — Algebra I, English I and biology — are typically given in the first year of high school and another test, English II, during the sophomore year. The fifth exam, in U.S. history, is mostly taken in the junior year. For Algebra I and biology, students have to answer just 37 percent of questions correctly to pass, Hammond noted.
Seliger emphasized that not all students who fail the end-of-course exams will qualify for an exemption. Before it was approved by the Senate Education Committee, he made one change in his bill that will disqualify any student who has failed three or more of the five exams. His bill could come up for a vote in the full Senate this week or next.
“It may be only half of these students are allowed to walk across the stage in May with the rest of the graduates,” Seliger said.
But he’s trying to move quickly to help students in this year’s senior class. The senator said his legislation was prompted by the estimated 28,000 seniors who have not passed all five end-of-course tests required for graduation. That is about 10 percent of the senior class.
“Without a high school diploma, these students cannot attend college, join the military or qualify for many jobs,” Seliger said. He said many of the students will simply drop out if they repeatedly fail the end-of-course exams.
Parents, teachers and school boards complain about high-stakes testing in Texas. Two years ago, they persuaded lawmakers to scrap 10 of the state’s 15 end-of-course exams before most were ever administered. Those that were dropped were the most difficult tests, such as chemistry, physics, Algebra II and English III.
Seliger said he doubts that the new waiver would make most students think there was no reason to worry about the tests. “I have more faith in Texas educators than that,” he said.
His bill would create an “individual graduation committee” for each student who has failed end-of-course exams on multiple tries. The committee, made up of the principal, a teacher, counselor and parent, could exempt the student from the testing rule with a unanimous vote, allowing the student to receive a diploma. The panel would consider factors such as course grades and attendance.
In the fifth and eighth grades, a “grade placement committee” can already bypass failing test results and promote the student, and in most cases they do.
For example, about 10 percent of the students in fifth and eighth grades did not pass the STAAR reading and math exams in 2013 after three testing opportunities. But recent figures from the Texas Education Agency indicated that only 1.5 percent of fifth-graders and 1.1 percent of eighth-graders were retained at the same grade level in the fall of 2013.
Those retention rates were similar or less than the retention rates in other grade levels, where students did not have to pass any exam to be promoted. In fact, retention rates were higher in kindergarten through third grade and significantly higher in all four high school grades.
Overall, 3.3 percent of all students in Texas — nearly 156,000 — were retained across all grade levels in 2013.
The bottom line was that the STAAR test for fifth and eighth grades, often called a high-stakes exam, did not have much impact on student promotion and retention rates.
Rena Honea, a longtime teacher at Leila P. Cowart Elementary School in Oak Cliff, said students who fail the STAAR in elementary grades deserve special consideration because not all are getting the resources they need to develop skills measured by the test.
“Teachers want to see less testing and test preparation in school so they have more time for instruction,” said Honea, president of Alliance AFT in Dallas.
She contends that too much time is spent getting students ready for the STAAR. She supports the current system of waivers in the lower grades but said she is undecided on the Senate bill for high school students.
High school seniors in Texas have had to pass at least one graduation test to get a diploma for 28 years. The requirement dates to the landmark education law of 1984, which also included elementary class size limits and the no-pass, no-play rule.
Despite the alarm over the number of students who have not passed the end-of-course exams, a Texas Education Agency official said the failure rate is in line with that of the previous testing program, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
Gloria Zyskowski, director of student assessment at the agency, said 90.3 percent of the class of 2015 has passed all five exams, and that figured is expected to rise to at least 92.5 percent after the next administration of the exams this spring. In the first year that the TAKS test was required for graduation in 2005, 90.2 percent of seniors that year passed and received a diploma.
Students are allowed to retake any test they have failed, with three testing dates per year for each of the five exams.
Hammond insisted it is fair to require that students show they have mastered basic skills in core subjects before they are handed a diploma.
If the measure passes, he added, “it will signal to the 90 percent of kids who passed the tests that the goof-offs in class who never paid attention now get a bye from the Legislature.”
Seliger, however, said the purpose is to let the individual committees of parents and educators “look at the whole kid and see what the STAAR test is not telling us.”
Considering the “shortcomings” of the STAAR, he said, “we want them to decide if this is a kid who really needs to remain in high school.”
Follow Terrence Stutz on Twitter at @t_stutz.