Published 11:21 am Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Students in the fifth and eighth grade would no longer have to pass a reading and math assessment in order to move up a grade under a bill before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.   Critics of these tests say they put too much pressure on young students and state data shows that most students that fail these tests get promoted anyway. The bill, HB 515 sponsored by Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood, would make assessment testing in the fifth and eighth grade similar to other grades.

Here’s how the program works today, according to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath:   Every March, fifth and eighth graders are required to pass an assessment test, the STAAR, in reading and math in order to get promoted to the next grade. Most students pass, according to state data, with 75 percent of fifth graders and 82 percent of eighth graders passing the reading assessment, with similar passage rates for the math assessment. If a student fails an exam they can retest again in May, and again in July if he or she fails the retest. If a student fails all three, his or her parents come together with the teacher and principal to form a committee to decide if the student should be promoted anyway. The vast majority of kids who fail the assessments move on: 95 percent of students that fail assessments in fifth grade go on to sixth grade, and 97 percent of failing eighth graders advance to high school after the committee process.

The bill would eliminate the promotion requirement and make assessment testing in 5th and 8th grade like other grades; testing in May and promotion regardless of performance. Students in those grades who test unsatisfactorily would get remedial education, and the bill would also authorize remedial education for students that don’t pass the third grade math assessment exam. Students could still be held back a grade, said Morath, but it would be based on a holistic assessment of academic performance, as it is in every other grade. “Students should no longer hear a message that ‘You have to pass otherwise you won’t get promoted,'” he said.

Morath told members that the bill wouldn’t change accountability stakes for teachers and administrators and they would still be accountable for how well students perform on end of course assessments. Bill sponsor Taylor said the measure would reduce pressure on kids while maintaining standards for adults. “The fact is the ones that aren’t passing the test today…are still being promoted,” he said. “We’re really not changing the world. We’re taking some of the onus off of the kids, but the school is still going to be held accountable on how that educational process is going within that campus.”

One issue that caused concern for some members is language in the bill that would delete the requirement for testing on social studies in the eighth grade and replace the 11th grade US History assessment with a civics test. Houston Senator Paul Bettencourt said knowledge of social studies and history topics like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Civil War are fundamental to being an American. “This is worth testing to all Texans,” he said.   “The eighth grade social studies test, as best as I can determine, is the fundamental foundation for peoples’ participation in democracy.” He added he was similarly loath to end the social studies assessment for high school students.

Bill sponsor and Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor told members that the bill before them Tuesday was a starting point, and that he would craft a substitute to present for a vote based on stakeholder testimony and the preferences of the members.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, May 17 at 11 a.m.