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Texas Board Reverses Vote To Weaken High-School Exit Requirement

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Members of the Texas Board of Education this month wrestled with a difficult choice: whether to deny more than 1,500 high-school seniors a diploma, or to maintain the state's commitment to testing and tougher achievement standards.

After much twisting and squirming--and some public criticism from Gov. Ann W. Richards--board members in the end stood by their test.

The dilemma had arisen after some 8,100 high-school seniors failed to answer correctly at least 60 percent of the questions on the mathematics portion of the revamped Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. As a result, they will be denied diplomas this spring, although they will receive further academic help and another chance to take the test.

Some of those who barely missed the passing mark turned up at the board's meeting in Austin this month to plead for leniency.

Initially, board members voted 8 to 6 to spare 1,500 of the students by lowering the passing mark from this year's 60 percent to the 55 percent mark in effect last year.

After reading critical comments by Governor Richards and others in the next day's newspapers, however, the board reversed itself with a 9-to-5 vote to preserve the 60 percent standard.

Board members described the controversy and its surprise ending as a turning point in the state's efforts to boost school performance.

"In that moment, you couldn't help but feel for the children,'' said Jack Christie, a board member. "But later, when you thought about it, we had taken a stand about making the high-school diploma worth something, and here we were at the first test of that watering it down.''

"I hate this for those kids. I would love to have them socially involved in graduation, but you can't worry about that one day of glory,'' he said. "You have to worry about the next 50 years of employment.''

Doomed To Fail?

Governor Richards and others complained that, in many cases, schools have ignored warnings that the tests were going to become more rigorous. About 95 percent of the state's seniors passed the exam, which officials said reflects a 10th-grade proficiency level.

Sonia Hernandez, the Governor's education-policy director, said that some schools continue to allow students to earn their math credits by taking such courses as fundamentals of math, consumer math, and pre-algebra. Students who took only those courses, she said, were almost doomed to fail the state test.

"All of them are nothing but a rehash of 7th-grade math,'' Ms. Hernandez said. "Schools had been advised that there was a major change coming, but in spite of that, a lot of them did not change their courses.''

Ms. Hernandez and others said that the state board's decision may set in motion an effort to rethink high-school curricula and offer students more challenging courses.

At its next meeting, the state board may take up the issue of abolishing the lower-level math courses, as well as remedial courses in other subjects. In addition to signaling the need to upgrade high-school courses, Mr. Christie said, the decision makes clear to school districts that the board will stand behind next year's previously scheduled move to a 70 percent passing mark on the test.

For the students who will not earn diplomas this year, the state education department has begun to plan special summer-tutorial programs and will administer another round of the T.A.A.S. afterward.

The episode underscores efforts by state officials to demand increased student achievement in return for giving school administrators greater flexibility, officials said.

"School districts, as we continue to provide them with greater latitude and authority, have got to understand that student performance is non-negotiable,'' Ms. Hernandez said. "They've got to go back and revise their standards and programs.''

"I felt sorry for some of those students who didn't have the background to pass the test, but I have always wanted higher standards and tried to get lower-level courses eliminated,'' said Ray A. Alexander, another board member who changed his vote. "They're not gaining a thing from these remedial courses, and we will put them out.''

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