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Moves by Jeb Bush add to talk of 2016 candidacy

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Legislature OKs major testing, charter school bill


WILL WEISSERT,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Legislature opened in January with students, parents, teachers and school administrators across the state clamoring that making youngsters pass a nation-leading 15 state-mandated standardized tests to graduate high school was far too many.

While some leading business groups worried about watering down high academic standards and said it might leave students ill-prepared for the demanding jobs of tomorrow, the sustained backlash against too much testing largely drowned them out — and lawmakers listened.

The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly late Sunday night to slash the standardized tests required in high school by two thirds, to just five. And they overhauled the state curriculum, allowing some students to graduate without having to take Algebra II or other advanced math and science classes.

Both chambers also approved dramatically increasing the number of charter schools allowed to operate statewide, upping the current cap of 215 to 305 by September 2019.

Gov. Rick Perry has not commented but is expected to sign the changes into law.

"What we set out to do in January was to reform public education in this state," said Sen. Dan Patrick, a tea party Republican from Houston who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "We are maintaining rigor and accountability."

Patrick campaigned for months to erase entirely the charter cap, and to create a special board to approve a flood of new charter applications he expected would follow.

But the final bill is far more modest, encouraging gradual growth and leaving the ability to approve new charters in the hands of the governor-appointed state commissioner of education.

It also makes it easier for state authorities to close down poor-performing charters. That's important because, while many existing charters are among the state's highest-preforming campuses, schools with low academic ratings are also disproportionately charters.

Opponents had questioned why Texas needs to approve expansion when so many of the existing charter schools are struggling.

While increasing charters schools, and therefore giving parents and students more "school choice" was Patrick's crusade, the testing and curriculum shake-up was championed by Killeen Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, head of the House Public Education Committee. It is designed to give more flexibility to students who want to focus on vocational training that would better prepare them for high-paying jobs that don't require a college degree.

"I certainly don't want to move away from testing. Testing has brought us a long way," Aycock told the House, which moments later passed his curriculum bill unanimously and then broke into long and loud applause. "But testing has simply been overdone. Too much of a good thing is still not a good thing."

The Senate also passed the bill without dissenters, 31-0.

The changes would mean only exams in Algebra I, Biology, U.S. History and English I and II remain. Testing on English reading and writing, which had been given separately, would be combined. The measures also mandate that the state eventually continue to produce tests in Algebra II and English III — but they will be optional for school districts, and won't count toward how highly a school or district is rated on the state accountability scale.

The proposals supplant a 2007 law that created curriculum standards mandating that high school students take four years each of math, science, English and social studies. Instead, it would let them earn a "foundation" diploma without so many core academic courses, thus allowing more space for career-training electives.

They also create a "distinguished" high school diploma for students who complete Algebra II and other upper-level math and science courses. Doing so qualifies them for automatic admission to any Texas state university — just as all those who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes do now. Those who don't earn distinguished degrees wouldn't qualify for automatic admission.

Also, students will be required to start with a more demanding diploma plan, then opt for less rigorous course requirements after two years and with parental permission.

Still, critics, including many higher education leaders, say the proposals will essentially lower the bar for many students by enabling them to graduate without really challenging themselves. They point to studies that show a correlation between being able to pass Algebra II and succeeding in college and beyond — and say that as many young people as possible should take it.

Meanwhile, the state currently has 209 charters. Because operators can use a single charter to run multiple campuses, though, Texas has about 500 total charter schools educating more than 154,000 children, or 3 percent of its 5 million-plus public school students.

Sunday's approvals free up extra space, something advocates say is vital since around 100,000 students from across the state are on waitlists for charters that don't have the space to accommodate them. The charter bill passed easily in the Senate but met more opposition in the House, which voted to approve it 105-41.

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