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Texas rolls back student testing for a second time

Texas, the state that pioneered high-stakes testing for public schools, is continuing to roll back its extensive series of student assessments, with Gov. Rick Perry signing a bill that would exempt high performers  from taking some tests.

Perry has now signed two bills in a month that scale back standardized testing for public school students, another blow to the “accountability” movement and No Child Left Behind in the state that started it all.

House Bill 866, which Perry signed late Friday, cuts testing for high-performing students in grades three through eight, and passed both houses of the Legislature with unanimous support. A week earlier, Perry had signed House Bill 5, which slashed the number of required “end of course” tests for high school students from a national high of 15 tests to five.

In order for HB 866 to be implemented, however, the federal government will have to grant a waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates testing for third through eighth grade students.

DeEtta Culbertson, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, said her department has not yet applied for the waiver. “First we’re analyzing the bill and determining what we need to do,” she said, adding that Texas is still waiting on the results of a broader NCLB waiver request that was filed five months ago.

While Perry signed HB 5 and HB 866, he vetoed two other testing rollback bills that also passed the Legislature with overwhelming support. HB 2824 would have given certain high-performing schools the choice of opting out of some state tests, while HB 2836 would have ended the state writing exam for fourth- and seventh-grade students and required an independent audit to prove that the tests were accurately measuring student abilities.

Perry issued a statement  saying he had rejected HB 2836 because “it has the potential to de-emphasize  …  important curriculum standards in the classroom.” In a separate statement, he said he vetoed HB 2824 because he did not want to “compromise academic rigor or student outcomes,” even though “flexibility and innovation are important.”

State Rep. Ben Ratliff, R-Coppell, who sponsored both of the vetoed bills, said that unlike the governor, who doesn’t face re-election until 2014, he and every other member of the Legislature  listened to complaints from voters about testing while on the campaign trail last fall.

“We have been at home hearing about it,” he said. “I don’t think it would have passed both houses unanimously if it was a bad idea.”

Texas led the nation in emphasizing standardized testing, with a steady growth in the number of tests required of students over the past three decades. The Texas system became the model for the No Child Left Behind Act. But when Texas raised the number of tests required of high schoolers to 15 in 2011, the law sparked a public backlash. Said Ratliff, “We finally crossed a line and went too far.”

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Ratliff said the bills he sponsored were intended to make sure Texans are “getting what we paid for” with the state’s multimillion-dollar testing contracts.

“Are we truly getting accountability,” he asked, “or are we teaching kids to take a test?”

Ratliff said he intended to reintroduce the bills during the next legislative session in 2015. “It is certainly my intent if the voters honor me by sending me back,” he said. “I still believe that our testing system needs reform.”

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