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Critics Say Texas School Districts Approved Too Many Graduation Waivers Under New Law


A recent survey of the state’s 100 largest school districts found that an overwhelming majority of students who failed one or two end-of-year exams were allowed to graduate this past year.

The Texas Association of Business did the survey, and the group argues that these numbers show students aren’t graduating ready for work or college. The Dallas school district bucked the statewide trend – it granted waivers for only one of every six students who requested them.

Texas Association of Business President and CEO Bill Hammond says the results of the survey are alarming. Seventy-eight of the 100 districts surveyed responded. What it found: 86 percent of students who failed up to two exit-level tests were allowed to graduate.

“We think that’s a shockingly high number, effectively that the high school diploma for those high school kids means little or nothing…,” Hammond said at a recent press conference in Austin.

The students were allowed to graduate under a new law – Senate Bill 149 – signed last spring. Students must take 5 exit-level tests to graduate, but they can apply for a waiver if they fail one or two of those exams.

A committee – made up of parents, teachers, counselors or administrators – looks at other criteria to determine whether the student should graduate. These include grades, attendance and additional work, like a research project. If a student does well on all of those things, the committee could allow the student to graduate.

Hammond, however, argues this is all part of a trend of not holding school districts and students accountable.

“Today in Texas over two thirds of jobs being created require some post-secondary attainment, even just a certificate,” Hammond said. “But the kids who are allowed to graduate without having the requisite skills simply will not be able to go to a community or 4-year school and be successful.”

According to the survey, the Dallas Independent School District was the toughest district. Of the 961 waivers requested, only 178 waivers were granted. That's 18.5 percent of waivers requested. Other districts, like Denton, approved 100 percent, or 36 out of 36, of the graduation waivers requested.

“We felt like our process was pretty rigorous,” said Sherry Christian, assistant superintendent for Dallas ISD. It wasn’t just ‘okay, here you get your diploma.’ They really had to meet qualifications to get that.”

Under one category, Christian said, students either had to pass a dual credit course or have an AP score of 3 or better to move forward in the process. Other students were grouped into other categories and had to meet other criteria.

Hammond said he wished more districts were as rigorous. He likens what many districts are doing to the process known as social promotion, or moving students up a grade. In too many of those cases, he said, students were sent to the next grade and failure rates soared.

“Now unfortunately the same thing is happening toward graduation,” Hammond said. “On Algebra 1 and biology test, students only have to get 37 percent of a question correct on what’s a multiple choice test. We believe that standard itself is too low.”

Hammond and other critics of this process said they want the Legislature to end the program when it meets again next in 2017.

Note: A previous version of this story reported that, according to the survey, McAllen was the only school district that denied waivers to every student who requested one. This week, a McAllen ISD spokesman said that, at the time of the survey, his district had not yet processed the information requested by the Texas Association of Business and that McAllen's information in the survey is incorrect.  He said the district ultimately approved the majority of student requests for graduation.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.