• August 23, 2014

Texas House, Senate reach testing, charter schools deal

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Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2013 4:30 am

AUSTIN — House and Senate negotiators said Saturday they reached a deal to overhaul high school standardized testing and curriculum standards while also dramatically increasing the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Texas.

Public Education has dominated the legislative session, with both chambers approving different versions of a charter school expansion bill, and a proposal to slash from a nation-leading 15 to five the number of standardized tests high school students must pass to graduate while overhauling curriculum standards to promote academic flexibility.

Those were reconciled in conference committee — but that compromise must still clear an up-or-down vote expected today in each chamber before it can go to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk to be signed into law.

“We’re where we wanted to be,” said Sen. Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate Education Committee and helped craft the reconciled proposal.

Patrick and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, head of the House Public Education Committee, said they expect Perry to support the bill — if it can clear both chambers. The compromise could face an especially tough road in the often-fickle House, however, which sometimes bristles at changes to its bills.

Asked if he had enough support, Aycock told reporters, “I think so. Obviously we will lose some votes.”

The plan slashes by two-thirds the state-mandated standardized tests students must pass, leaving only exams in Algebra I, Biology, Chemistry and English I and II. It also combines testing on English reading and writing, which had been given in separate exams.

After two years, it requires that the state produce separate tests in Algebra II and English III that will be optional for school districts to administer and won’t count toward a school or district’s accountability rating scale.

The shakeup comes amid a backlash against what students, parents, teachers and even school administrators say was over-testing. But leading business groups have worried that cutting back on testing requirements too much could ultimately leave Texas students ill-prepared for the demanding jobs of tomorrow.

The reconciled bill is also designed to free high school students from so many curriculum requirements, thus giving them the flexibility to focus on career and technical training for jobs that are well-paid but don’t necessarily require going to college.

It replaces the current academic plan requiring students to take four years each of math, science, social studies and English with one that only mandates three years of math, science, and social studies. It also is meant to offer courses in math and science geared more toward career training.

But the plan also establishes a “foundation” diploma that allows students to avoid taking four years of math and science and skip upper-level classes like Algebra II, which higher education experts say is a key predictor to success in college.

Those opting for the base plan, though, won’t be allowed to qualify for automatic admission into the state’s public universities under current law admitting the top 10 percent of graduating classes.

Meanwhile, the state currently has 209 charters. Because operators can use a single charter to run multiple campuses, though, Texas has about 500 total charter schools educating about 154,000 children, or 3 percent of its 5 million-plus public school students.

The Senate charter school bill increased the cap to 305 by September 2019. Though the House version included a maximum of just 275 over time, the conference committee opted to approve a cap of 305 — a move that may anger some lawmakers in the lower chamber.

The reconciled version also may not count proven, out-of-state charter operators who want to run multiple campuses in Texas against the cap, and exempts special “drop-out recovery” charters that specialize in getting students who have previously abandoned their studies to return to school. That could free up still more space for additional charters.

Patrick is the Legislature’s leading advocate for school choice. He said Saturday, “I would have liked to see the cap lifted entirely, but I’m just one of the 181 members.” He was counting all lawmakers in both the House and Senate.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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