Let the “STAAR wars” begin

Under legislation introduced Wednesday by the new chairman of the state House Public Education Committee, the number of exams required to graduate from high school, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, would drop from 15 to 5.

“That number is up for debate. I had to pick a number and start somewhere,” said state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who was named chairman last week.

And the debate is expected to be heated.

Newly engaged groups of parents and business interests have gained political traction in their push to overhaul the state’s graduation and testing requirements.

But the business and political leaders who crafted the STAAR requirements in 2009 say the changes would undermine the state’s goal of graduating students ready for college or a career.

The Texas House has been a hotbed of rebellion over the state testing system. In a symbolic shot across the bow, House budget writers nixed all state funding for the testing system in the chamber’s base budget for 2014-15. Two years ago, House members overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have delayed implementation of the new tougher new tests, but Senate leaders killed that bill.

Aycock said House members are responding to frustration they are hearing from parents and educators that Texas has gone overboard on standardized testing. All 10 members of his committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, have signed on to Aycock’s bill.

The four courses connected to the required exams — 10th-grade English, algebra, biology and U.S. history — are necessary for admission to most colleges, Aycock said.

“If they complete those four courses and successfully complete the (end-of-course exams), in theory they should be college-ready,” Aycock said.

He has also proposed new graduation plans that would give students more flexibility in their course loads so that they can pursue particular interests or career paths.

School officials said the measure was a practical compromise that retained the aim of college- and career-readiness while reducing the testing mandates.

“Representative Aycock’s bill reduces over-reliance on standardized tests, allowing teachers to focus on educating their students while using assessments to determine how best to help children move forward as opposed to the current system that uses assessments to hold children back,” said Catherine Clark of the Texas Association of School Boards.

Some business leaders, however, see Aycock’s proposal as a retreat from the state’s high standards.

“The problem is the lowering of the expectations. That is what’s going to hurt the kids,” said Drew Scheberle of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “Why not just give a diploma in ninth grade and solve your dropout problem?”

Scheberle said there is a way to lower the number of required tests without forgoing the academic rigor that will ensure students are ready for the high-skilled jobs that Texas is attracting.

But a newly engaged group of parents say the Aycock bill doesn’t go far enough.

“I appreciate the direction they’re going, but I think for parents this is still too many tests,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped launch the statewide parent group, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment.

Majcher, whose daughter was in the first class to take the end-of-course exams last spring, said the parents in her group want to see only three state tests: algebra, 1oth-grade reading and writing.

Aycock’s proposed changes would apply to today’s ninth- and 10th-graders, who are in a state of limbo until the Legislature makes a decision.

Many of those students are struggling on the more rigorous exams. In the Class of 2015, nearly 123,000 students, or 35 percent, are off-track for graduation because they have failed at least one end-of-course exam after three tries.

“I believe we are in something of a crisis,” Aycock said. “I don’t know whether the problem is the kids, the teaching, the standards, the testing. But something has to be fixed. … If we don’t fix this by May, we’re going to push 100,000-plus kids over the cliff.”

Among other changes, Aycock’s bill would also eliminate a requirement that schools count a student’s end-of-course exam score toward 15 percent of his or her final grade.

On the other side of the Texas Capitol, the Senate on Wednesday approved the first bill of the legislative session, which also erased that 15-percent requirement.

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