Marble Falls leaders look to Texas lawmakers to ease student testing, create graduation flexibility

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — Typically, Texas Legislative sessions give school administrators a bit of heartburn, not knowing what changes state leaders are going to throw at them.

But this year, a couple of bills filed in the Texas House and Senate have put smiles on some educators’ faces.

“I’m so happy the Legislature is addressing accountability, testing and graduation requirements,” said Marble Falls Independent School District Superintendent Rob O’Connor. “It’s really a sigh of relief.”

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, introduced House Bill 5 on Feb. 6. The bill tackles a realm of education issues including graduation requirements and testing.

Aycock, the chair of the House Public Education Committee, said his proposal still keeps a strong focus on education but creates a degree of flexibility for students interested in pursuing career-and-technology programs (previously called vocational).

“We know not all students are going to go on to college,” said Aycock, who represents District 54. “But the current rules don’t give students much flexibility in determining what classes they want to take.”

Currently, Texas public high schools follow the “4-by-4” plan. Under it, students must take four years of English/language arts, math, science and social studies. Born of a time when state leaders stressed college readiness, the curriculum requirements didn’t give much leeway to students who were eyeing a future in highly skilled trades.

“This bill still has a strong focus on college preparedness,” O’Connor said. “But it gives us and the students a lot more room to work with for those kids who don’t want to go to college but still need to learn skills that will help them land good jobs.”

Under HB5, students still would take four years of English/language arts but only need three math credits (Algebra I, geometry and an advanced math course), two science credits, three social studies credits, two foreign language credits, one fine arts credit, one physical education credit and eight elective credits.

The legislation creates paths for students to earn endorsements in several areas including: business and industry; arts and humanities; public services; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Many of Aycock’s fellow representatives, including the entire Public Education Committee, have either signed on as the bill’s author or coauthor. Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, who represents Burnet County and sits on the Public Education Committee, has signed on as coauthor.

Aycock’s isn’t the only bill addressing graduation requirements, testing and accountability. On Feb. 1, state Sen. Dan Patrick introduced Senate Bill 3, which is similar to HB5.

O’Connor said there appears to be a strong interest from state leaders to address graduation requirements, testing and school accountability.

“I think it’s a grassroots effort,” he said. “I think representatives listened to the community voices that were concerned about some of the requirements handed down to schools and students.”

HB5 also tackles end-of-course testing under the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). Currently, high school students who are under STAAR (juniors and seniors still fall under the previous Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) face up to 15 end-of-course exams to graduate.

It makes Texas public high school students among the most tested in the nation in order to graduate.

“Under this legislation, students would only be required to take five exams in order to graduate,” O’Connor said. “It really addresses the excessive testing.”

HB5 is scheduled for a public hearing Feb. 19 in the Public Education Committee.

While O’Connor is relieved legislators are addressing testing and graduation requirements, he hasn’t seen much, if any, movement on another pressing issue districts are grappling with.

“There really hasn’t been anything done on school finance,” he said. “Public schools haven’t seen an increase in state funding since 2006. Yet, our enrollments continue to increase. If all (the Legislature) did was put the money back in they cut two years ago, that would be a tremendous amount of help. At least then we could give our teachers raises. And they deserve raises.”

daniel@thepicayune.com