AUSTIN -- With only two dissenting votes, House members on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that would restructure high school graduation requirements in Texas and would slash the number of end-of-course exams, which have come under attack from parents.
HB5 is designed to instill more flexibility in public education by enabling students to either 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. It would reduce the number of end-of-course exams from 15 to five and eliminate a controversial requirement that the test results constitute 15 percent of a student's overall grade.
"I believe this is good policy," said House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen. "I think most people in Texas think its good policy. This is a serious matter for all our children."
The day-long debate on one of the session's signature issues illustrated the intense public interest in academic standards and student assessments. House members worked their way through more than 100 amendments before giving preliminary approval on a vote of 145-2. Supporters fended off most of the proposed changes, agreeing only to those amendments deemed acceptable by Aycock, the bill's chief architect.
A final House vote is expected today.
The Senate is also expected to take up the issue today when it considers measures by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to revise graduation requirements and reduce state-mandated student assessments. A final bill will likely be crafted by a House-Senate conference committee.
The two no votes on HB5 came from Reps. Mark Strama, D-Austin, and Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso.
The legislation has attracted little organized opposition and has widespread support from parents and many education groups upset over what they consider an oppressive testing regimen.
"The benefits of House Bill 5 are tremendous," said Julie Shields, assistant director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards. "Parents and students and the general community want to see something change in terms of the testing system. House Bill 5 will bring about that change."
The influential Texas Association of Business opposed the bill, but other business groups supported the measure, including the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of 22 industry and trade organizations representing Texas employers.
Parents banded together in a group called Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment have also supported HB5.
Critics of the testing regimen under the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) said the heavy emphasis on student assessments forced schools to focus too heavily on testing over course work. House members also made several references to testing-related scandals, including one that resulted in a prison sentence against former El Paso School Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia in 2012.
Garcia was accused of attempting to inflate the school districts' overall scores by preventing low-achieving students from taking the tests. Rep. Joe. Moody, D-El Paso, offered an amendment to prevent school districts from giving administrators bonuses based on test scores, but House members rejected the measure after Aycock suggested that it could undermine a local district's flexibility in setting policy.
Path to college
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 24-credit foundation high school program.
The bill also establishes a separate "distinguished" track through additional requirements that would be designed for those planning on attending colleges or universities.
All high school graduates would be eligible to apply for admission to Texas universities, according to a House Research Organization analysis, but only students completing the distinguished level would be eligible for the so-called "10 percent rule" that allows students to automatically gain college admission by finishing in the top 10 percent of their graduating class.
Students choosing the qualified option would be required to earn four credits of science and four credits of math, including algebra II. Students could also earn endorsements on their diplomas in any of five areas: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), business and industry, public services, arts and humanities and multidisciplinary studies.
Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, expressed concern that smaller, financially strapped rural districts would not be able to afford large enough course offerings to support the endorsements. "It's going to be discriminatory to small towns and rural areas," she said.
Supporters of the bill said the revisions would enable students not planning to enter college to prepare themselves for skilled jobs in the workforce immediately after graduation.
Business and industry leaders in Texas and other states have warned that a de-emphasis on technical training has resulted in a serious shortage of skilled labor for manufacturing and high-tech jobs.
"Right now, there are some shortages in industry jobs and this would help graduate more students who are ready to go into those skills," said Matt Geske, governmental affairs director for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, adding that HB5 "provides a flexible pathway for students."
Another key aspect of the bill would focus on public school accountability with a new three-category rating system assessing schools on academic performance, financial performance and community and student engagement.
Schools and districts would be rated with letter grades of A, B and C for acceptable performance and an F to reflect unacceptable performance, according to the House Research Organization analysis.
Dave Montgomery is chief of the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau.