AUSTIN, TX -- Critics of a recently passed Texas law that allows students to graduate without passing statewide standardized tests say it has padded graduation numbers and afforded diplomas to students who can't show they have the knowledge they'll need in college, jobs or technical education.
Proponents of Senate Bill 149 say it has provided opportunities for students who struggle because of language barriers or learning disabilities to have a way to succeed in high school, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
The newspaper reports that graduation rates in Texas have hit an all-time high and that part of the credit is due to the law, which was signed in 2015.
More than 5,800 students statewide graduated in 2015 despite failing at least one of five end-of-course exams that are part of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test.
Preliminary data for the 2016 graduating class indicates that even more students graduated in the spring, the newspaper reported.
The new rules, which went into place just weeks prior to 2015 graduations, allow districts to form review committees composed of teachers, principals and parents to determine whether seniors who fail the required STAAR exams but have met the other course requirements should graduate.
Across the state, many of the students who benefited from the new rules were those learning English, said Penny Schwinn, deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency. Graduation rates for those students improved by 10 percentage points or more.
Educators said SB 149 has also helped more students with learning disabilities, who often struggle with standardized tests, to get diplomas.
"This is a group of kids who have otherwise met requirements," said Theresa Treviño, president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. The law "puts the control in local hands. It's a more holistic view of the students."
Treviño said in the group's study of other states, only 14 states require students to pass exams to graduate. Five years ago, it was 25. In 13 of the 14 states, there is a backup option for students who did not pass to graduate, like the one Texas enacted, she said.
But Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Business Association and an ardent supporter of rigorous testing, called SB 149 a new way to inflate the state's graduation rate, which has increased more than 8 percentage points since 2009.
"I think there's rampant abuse and the numbers are not substantive," Hammond said. "In the blink of an eye, Texas has shot up with no stated reason other than, in my view, the gaming of the system. If we're going to do better with our children, who are our future, we need to be honest about where we are, which we are not."