Lawmakers take on accountability, testing, curriculum in public schoolsThe education of 4.3 million public school students is one of the state's top priorities, with some of the biggest battles in the Capitol raging over private school vouchers, curriculum, graduation rates, school accountability, teacher pay and how to fund it all.

This session, lawmakers turned their attention to the quality of education and passed sweeping changes for the state.


Lawmakers reached a deal May 26 to restore $3.9 billion in public education funding. Two years ago, more than $5 billion was cut during a budget crunch.

"The schoolchildren, parents and taxpayers of Texas have won an important first battle in the effort to restore the disastrous cuts," said Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who forced the Legislature into a special session in 2011 to protest the cuts.

Testing changes

Both Republicans and Democrats said one of the biggest complaints they heard between sessions was that students in the state's 1,400 high schools were taking too many tests. Another complaint: Nearly half the ninth-graders in the state failed at least one of the state's mandatory achievement tests.

Under the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness system that began with the 2011–12 ninth-grade class, students took 15 end-of-course exams in 12 subjects before they could graduate.

With House Bill 5, the state will now reduce that to five standardized tests: English I, English II, algebra I, biology and U.S. history. Districts can also offer diagnostic tests in algebra II and English III that will not count toward accountability ratings.

Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, was appointed to the committee assigned to hammer out differences between House and Senate versions of the education bills.

"One of the most important things that House Bill 5 addresses is dropout rates and truancy rates," he said. "If we are holding these kids accountable for 15 end-of-course exams that they're having trouble passing, at some point they just stop coming to school."

Graduation standards

The House and Senate also changed graduation standards in legislation passed just before the regular session ended May 27.

The current system with minimum, recognized and advanced degrees has been lauded as leading to record-high graduation rates but has been criticized for turning out low-performing graduates.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, told a judge during the school finance trial earlier this year that a lack of qualified graduates "is a looming crisis because of our aging workforce. It will be devastating."

The House and Senate agreed on a 24-credit foundation high school program that allows for endorsements—specialty designations or emphases in areas such as art, science or math—so freshmen to tailor their curriculum to suit future career choices.

Lawmakers rejected a plan favored by Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, which would have required four years each of math, science, English and social studies but allowed for specialties in certain areas.

Parental power

One proposal by Dripping Springs Republican Rep. Jason Isaac would have thrown out the 1,100-page state education code in favor of a 62-page document that allowed schools to opt out of state mandates and develop their own curricula, including a section that empowered parents to improve or punish the schools not succeeding.

The measure did not pass, but Isaac said it was an important idea to debate.

School accountability

Schools and districts currently undergo an annual rating system based on the EOC test scores. They then receive a rating: Exemplary, Recognized, Academically Acceptable or Academically Unacceptable.

Individual campuses will still be subject to the four-label system, but a new rating system approved by the House and Senate changes that to an A–F rating for school districts; those ratings are based on academic and financial performance as well as on community and student engagement.

The importance of adequate assessment cannot be overstated, said Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

"I think what we're seeing is that we still have kids failing school, and we still have schools that are failing," she said. "When you have a child that is trapped in a failing school, who's accountable for that, and what are we doing as legislators who are accountable?"