AUSTIN (AP) - Gov. Rick Perry on Monday signed into law a much-watched high school curriculum overhaul that cuts the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate from 15 to five.
But many students continue to struggle with even those state-mandated exams that survived the shakeup.
Approved unanimously by both the Texas Senate and House, the law is designed to give more flexibility to students who want to focus on career and technical training, not just college-prep courses. Amid a backlash from students, parents and teachers about too much testing, however, it also slashes the number of required exams in core courses by two-thirds.
There was speculation Perry would veto the bill amid criticism from some groups, including the influential Texas Association of Business, that it weakened curriculum standards and would leave high school graduates ill-prepared for the demanding jobs of the future.
Perry acknowledged during a signing ceremony that he was initially worried about watering down academic standards. But he said the measure maintains proper classroom rigor while giving students a chance to pursue high-paying jobs that don't necessarily require a college degree.
"We set the bar high in our state," Perry said. "And our students are consistently rising to that challenge."
The changes create a base or "foundation" high school diploma that only requires graduates to pass tests in Algebra I, Biology, U.S. History and English I and II. Tests in English reading and writing, which had been given separately, will be combined.
It also loosens rules that had required four years each of math, English, science and social studies, so students will have more time for vocational training.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams had said he hoped the Legislature wouldn't reduce the number of standardized tests too much, but nonetheless cheered the measure Monday. He said Texas "wants to be the national leader" in career training.
The law was also applauded by educational groups, including the Texas State Teachers Association, whose president, Rita Haecker said, "We know a real education is more than learning how to take a test."
"This new law will give teachers more time to do what they do best — teach — and will give their students more time to learn," Haecker said in a statement.
Later Monday, state officials announced that passing rates for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam remained relatively low.
Students first began taking the exam known as STAAR last school year, and the high rate of failure helped fuel the backlash against perceived over-testing that dominated the legislative session, fueling widespread support for the curriculum overhaul.
"While we would have hoped to see an across-the-board increase in performance, the difficulty of the tests, coupled with the uncertainty of the testing program's future, likely impacted performance this year," Williams said in a statement.
This year, 82.1 percent of students passed the Algebra I exam, down 0.6 percent from last year. Some 86.2 percent passed Geometry in the first year that exam was given.
English I reading saw a 70.1 percent passing rate — a 2.2 percent increase from 2012 — and 78 percent of test-takers passed English II reading, which was wasn't given last year.
In writing, 54.3 percent of students, or 0.2 percent less than last year, passed the English I exam, while 52.7 percent passed the English II test, which wasn't given the previous year.
Some 88 percent of students passed Biology, up nearly a whole percentage point from 2012, while 83.7 percent passed a chemistry test administered for the first time this year.
In World History, 80.5 percent of students passed, or 0.1 percent less than last year — and 70.2 percent passed World History, which was given for the first time.
The new law means standardized testing in geometry, chemistry and world geography and world history will no longer be required.
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