AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Most Texans seem to agree that the new high school graduation standards need to change, but there is little agreement on how to do it.
Options for new graduation standards range from five to 15 end-of-course exams, the scores of which may or may not count toward a student's grade point average. There is also a debate over whether high school kids should be able to choose to focus on college preparation or for vocational education when selecting classes.
And lawmakers only began to find out last week what all this might cost. The Legislative Budget Board declared that Sen. Dan Patrick's proposed overhaul, Senate Bill 3, would cost the state $35 million in the first two years, something he wasn't expecting.
Patrick, a Houston Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has proposed ending the requirement that all high school students take four years each of English, math, science and social studies for a combined 16 core credits out of 26 to graduate. His bill creates four avenues for graduation, including a "Foundation Diploma" that requires only 12 core credits out of 26, presumably for those not intending to go to college.
Patrick's plan also includes specially endorsed diplomas in business and industry, arts and humanities, science and math and distinguished achievement. The bill answers complaints from school officials who say the current system doesn't suit all students, many of whom need vocational training instead.
Critics, though, worry that Patrick's bill is lowering the standard for a basic high school diploma. Higher education officials already complain they are spending too much time teaching remedial courses to incoming freshmen whose high school classes were not up to snuff.
Barbara Cargill, chair of the State Board of Education, told a Senate committee last week that experts have been striving for a compromise under the existing system by identifying seven career and technology courses that could count toward a fourth year of math or science. She said that would allow students interested in vocational training to graduate while taking relevant courses.
Patrick insists that his plan does not lower standards.
"We are stepping up. We are asking more of our students to be competitive," Patrick told his committee. He invited officials from Toyota and BASF to testify about the difficulty of finding workers with technical expertise that could be taught in high school or community college.
One group that has been most insistent about more rigorous standards has been the Texas Association of Business, where employers have complained that Texas has a poorly educated workforce. The group's president, Bill Hammond, lobbied hard for tougher testing and the new STAAR system was the result. His organization has resisted moves to lessen testing requirements.
Replacing a single standardized year-end exam, STAAR was designed for students to take after completing 15 courses needed to graduate, and the score would count toward 15 percent of their grade. But after students performed poorly during the first round of testing, the Texas Education Commission suspended the so-called 15 percent rule.
Patrick and other lawmakers have introduced legislation that will permanently drop the rule, and there is no serious opposition. But Patrick has also proposed reducing the number of end-of-course exams to five, insisting that schools are spending too much time and money testing kids.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, whom Gov. Rick Perry appointed in August, supports dropping the 15 percent rule and reducing the number of exams, but told lawmakers last week that he thinks they should take more than just five.
Williams summed up the coming weeks when he said he expects "a robust conversation" about what critics call high-stakes testing.
Just a few years ago, Texas ranked among the lowest states in the nation in high school graduation rates and still ranks among the lowest in college assessment scores. Texas lawmakers are anxious to improve the state's standing, and they will spend much of the session trying to make progress without angering those who administer and take the tests.
Parents and students will turn out in droves as lawmakers shape the numerous proposals and boil it down to a single new law. They want a system that is rigorous enough to prepare a child for college or career, but not so hard that it drives down their grade point average and makes her or him uncompetitive for the nation's best universities.
The wide variation in proposed solutions to Texas' dilemma means long hours of debate and horse trading in Austin before the session ends May 27.
Senate Bill 3: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=SB3
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Chris Tomlinson is the AP's supervisory correspondent in Austin, responsible for state government and political reporting in Texas.