AUSTIN — Addressing one of the major education issues of the 2013 Legislature, the Senate unanimously approved legislation Monday that creates more flexibility in public school graduation requirements and answers widespread demands to reduce the number of end-of-course tests.Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the architect of HB5, said his measure will enable students to pursue a traditional path into colleges and universities or move directly into the workforce to help fill what business leaders say is a critical skills shortage.Patrick’s bill strikes the same objective as the House-passed bill authored by House Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killen, but differences in the bills will likely send the issue to a House-Senate conference committee for a final compromise in the remaining weeks of the legislature.Patrick said there are “quite a few”’ differences between the Senate and House bills, but he expressed confidence that House-Senate negotiators can find a compromise before the Legislature’s May 27 adjournment.“We’re not that far apart,” he said. “And in areas where there’s a difference, we’ll find a solution.”Patrick, who has angrily countered complaints that his bill would weaken academic standards, told colleagues that his bill targets students who are either dropping out of school or graduating with a minimum degree.“We cannot have a future in the state if 40 percent of our students are either dropping out or graduating without skills for a job,” said Patrick.The bill would reduce the number of end-of-course exams from 15 to five, the same amount called for by the House.But under an amendment authored by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodland, local districts would have the option of offering two “diagnostic” end-of-course tests on Algebra II and English III, both of which are considered a measure of college readiness.The diagnostic exams, which were part of a compromise to get the bill to the floor, would not be required for graduation, but Patrick expressed concern that they might be the equivalent of adding two more exams.An amendment by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, allowed local districts, working with the Texas Education Commissioner, to develop an algebra II equivalent course that would meet the eligibility requirements for admission under the state’s top 10 percent rule, as well as approval for the TEXAS grants student assistance program.The top 10 percent rule allows students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes to automatically qualify for admission to almost all state colleges and universities.Patrick’s bill, Davis said, “brings relevance, rigor and flexibility to our high school curriculum, and a student who takes advantage of that flexibility should not be barred from any of the state’s higher education programs.Senators also included another Davis amendment designed to require the state’s testing contractor to insure that the tests meet the intent of the legislature. Davis likened the requirement to a manufacturer’s warranty.Testing concernsLinda Bridges, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the reduction of testing addressed widespread concerns about “too much emphasis” on testing.“Could we do more – absolutely,” she said. “But this is a move forward.”Parents who banded together in a group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment have been a driving force in advancing the legislation.Other groups supporting the changes include the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Association of School Administrators, the Texas Association of School Boards, the National Federal of Independent Business in Texas and the Texas Association of Builders.One of the most visible opponents was the influential Texas Association of Business, which contends that the legislation will weaken students’ readiness for career or college.“We already graduate only 25 percent of students who are career or college ready,” declared TAB president and CEO Bill Hammond, saying he was “extremely disappointed” with the Senate-passed bill. “I don’t understand why many of our lawmakers are dead set on running away from strong requirements meant to increase that number.”The bill makes fundamental changes in public schools' current pathway to graduation by replacing the existing minimum, recommended and advanced high-school program with a 26-credit foundation high school program. Students would also pursue “endorsements” in one of four paths - business and industry; arts and humanities; STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and a “distinguished” path.Patrick said the unanimous 31-0 vote sent a “powerful” message of the Legislature’s commitment to restructuring education.He also said the bill would be “great” for teachers by slashing time spent on testing, enabling them to focus on their mission of teaching.The number of testing days, he said, would be reduced from about 90 to about 15 to 20.The Senate on Monday also approved a new accountability rating system that replaces the current regimen ranking schools and districts from “exemplary” to “academically unacceptable.”Instead, school districts would be issued letter grades A through F, which proponents say are easier for parents to understand. Schools would continue to be ranked using the old system. This report includes material from The Associated Press.