After getting overwhelming approval from the House—and then sitting for a few weeks—a bill bringing big changes to Texas’ testing and graduation requirements is on the move again.
Pro-testing national groups have made the most of this break in the action—in a three-day stretch last week, the Washington Post editorialized against House Bill 5 and The New York Times took a rough look at Texas lawmakers ready to embrace “backtracking on testing.”
Opening this morning’s Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill, Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) was ready with a wagging finger of his own for those East Coast elitists. “Since when does Texas worry about what the Washington Post editorial board and the New York Times editorial board have to say about our legislation in Texas?” he wondered.
“Maybe the Legislature should just go home and let The New York Times represent the House and the Washington Post represent the Senate,” he went on—a ridiculous idea because the Times would be a much better fit for the Senate.
For months, the big education policy action was all about scaling back the state exams; Texas’ 15 high school tests are far more than any other state requires. Trimming the number of tests has been an easy sell at the Capitol this session.
By the time HB 5 came up on the House floor, the real debate was about the bill’s new graduation plans, which would no longer require the 4-by-4 plan passed in 2009 to promote college readiness for all students. Higher education leaders worry the new plan will send more students into university classes they’re not prepared for—something the Times reported Gov. Rick Perry is concerned too. Advocates for Hispanic students worried the new focus on “career readiness” would be unfairly applied to minority students. (Check out the Dallas Observer‘s Jim Schutze for more on why “advocates for poor and minority children are fighting to keep high standards.”)
So Patrick came out swinging this morning to defend the bill—and to jab at the bill’s detractors. Patrick noted that companies with the Texas Association of Business, a group that’s been critical of HB 5, haven’t come to his office to explain their problems. Any claims that the new graduation requirements are less rigorous than the current ones, he said, are “just false.”
He said he recognizes there are some folks with whom he’ll simply disagree. “I realize some think that if you don’t have algebra II, chemistry and physics that somehow you’re not ready for life,” he said. “Well, not every student needs algebra II, chemistry and physics.”
But he saved his best shots for Pearson, the company that creates and scores Texas’ tests. “The testing company’s in the business of making a profit, and I understand that—I’m a small business guy,” he said. Later, he called on Pearson vice president David Clark to answer some questions not about the bill exactly, but about his company’s interest in the General Education Development (GED) test.
“So in business, you have them coming and going,” Patrick said “If they fail in high schools and have to go to a GED, you sell a test there.”
Clark disagreed with Patrick’s premise. “The implication of that, Senator, is that somehow, Pearson would welcome the failing of students so they’d be forced to take one more test,” he said.
Patrick, though, shared an unsettling realization about the private sector. “I’m just respectfully saying that the objective of Pearson, which is their right, is to make a profit. And the objective of Pearson is not in the best interest of the students and teachers,” he said.
The committee room was full of support for HB 5, ready with laughter or applause for lines like that one. At one point, Sen. Kel Seliger warned the crowd that “this is a hearing and not American Idol.”
MALDEF lawyer Marisa Bono offered rare criticism of the bill in today’s hearing, saying they’re ”concerned HB 5 still creates opportunities for tracking.” What should be most important to lawmakers, she said, is giving schools the resources they need to educate kids. ”We know this because we’ve seen it happen. These students can meet any level of rigor that the Legislature puts in front of them, if they’re given the proper support.”
The committee voted out House Bill 5 this afternoon, with a few changes from the House version, replacing the graduation paths with similar plans Patrick proposed in other bills. Other changes would provide state funding for students to take SAT or ACT tests—offset by the savings from giving fewer STAAR tests and providing more money to support kids retaking the tests.
Democratic Senators Leticia Van de Putte and Royce West took symbolic present-not-voting votes, saying they hoped to work on the bill before it reaches the Senate floor. Van de Putte said she’s concerned students will be too likely, under HB 5, to choose a graduation path that disqualifies them from state-funded college grants or automatic admission to state universities.