AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A powerful state senator on Tuesday angrily disputed national assertions that Texas is poised to drastically ease its public school curriculum and standardized testing requirements, saying "nothing could be further from the truth."
Texas lawmakers are considering a sweeping proposal designed to give more flexibility to students who want to focus on vocational training rather than college prep courses in high school. It would allow youngsters to earn a "foundation" diploma without taking upper-level math or science courses, including Algebra II, while reducing the number of standardized tests students must pass in order to graduate from a nation-high 15 to five, still more than 44 states currently require.
House Bill 5 sailed through the state House last month, then cleared the Senate Education Committee after more than six hours of discussion on a 7-0 vote, with two abstentions. It now goes to the full Senate.
Critics say it would lower the bar for students. They point to studies showing a correlation between being able to pass Algebra II, as well as courses like chemistry and physics, and succeeding in college and beyond.
Under the bill, though, students could still earn "distinguished" degrees by completing top math and science courses, and thus qualify for automatic admission to any Texas state university — just as all those who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes do now.
Those who don't earn distinguished degrees, meanwhile, wouldn't qualify for automatic admission under the new standards.
Sen. Dan Patrick, who is sponsoring House Bill 5 in the Senate and chairs the Education Committee, opened Tuesday's packed public hearing on it by scoffing at a recent New York Times story suggesting Texas may water down school and student accountability evaluations, and a Washington Post editorial opposing such a move.
He said of the idea Texas is "generally dumbing down" standards: "That's just false. Nothing could be further from the truth."
"If they are the end all and be all to what we should do in Texas, than maybe the Legislature should just go home and just let The New York Times represent the House and The Washington Post represent the Senate," the tea party Republican from Houston intoned. That drew applause from more than 100 people crowded into a small hearing room.
Patrick suggested that companies that produce standardized tests are lobbying lawmakers in hopes of derailing the bill, saying "let's be clear, if House Bill 5 dies, parents, students and teachers are going to be left with 15 tests and a degree program that continues to ignore the interests of all students and the business needs of all Texas."
"It will not be the fault of the Legislature," he said.
David Clark, a vice president who handles the Texas contract for the testing company Pearson Education Inc., said the firm administers 25.5 million tests in 19 states, but its top priority is quality — not profits.
"Would I ever sacrifice the quality for the sake of a buck, no," Clark said. "Nor do I think the 2,000 employees that work for Pearson in Texas, most of our children whom go to Texas schools, would sacrifice the quality of their children's education or assessment for the sake of making a buck."
Democratic Sen. Leticia Van De Putte of San Antonio proposed altering the bill to make the distinguished degree curriculum the state's default requirement, thus forcing students to opt out of that track instead of opting into it. A similar amendment introduced during House debate of the bill was defeated on the floor.
"If folks think that, because we are reducing the amount of end-of-course exams that that indicates a diminishment of standards and rigor, then they are misinformed," Van De Putte said. "I think that the statements that were made in editorials are because they confused testing with rigor and the curriculum." Patrick chimed in, "It would have been helpful too had they actually listened to testimony and read the bill, I think."
Patrick said hundreds of thousands of businesses statewide support House Bill 5 while only eight have publicly opposed it. Still, one of those is Bill Hammond, president of the powerful lobbying group the Texas Association of Business, who noted that 80 percent of Texas students are currently taking demanding course curriculums — but that only about a quarter leave high school ready for college or an immediate career.
"Our goal is an educated workforce," Hammond told the committee, "and we know that kids are going to have to go beyond high school in every case in order to earn themselves a living and fulfill the needs of the employers of the future."
James Windham, chairman of the conservative Texas Institute for Education Reform, agreed, saying House Bill 5 "represents a step backward in terms of the rigor."
"To keep these kids' attention, we believe there must be assessments that count in advanced math and science," he said of mandating standardized testing for upper-level courses.
But both were in the minority, as business leaders, parents and school superintendents pleaded for a reprieve from such rigid testing and curriculum standards.
"Relevance makes rigor possible for kids. And you cannot legislate relevance," said Duncan Klussmann superintendent of the Spring Branch school district in Houston. "You have to give kids choices to have relevance."