Thousands of students in North Texas are just one or two tests away from graduating high school. This year’s seniors are the first to have to pass five STAAR tests. So many haven’t passed, that Gov. Greg Abbott just signed a law giving those students a loophole.
Alejandra Genis took the STAAR test for English three times.
“My sophomore year, my junior year, and my senior year," she said. Each time, she feels like she is getting better. "The last time I took it, I just missed two points.”
The hardest questions for her are always the ones with two reading selections, where she has to write an essay comparing them.
“How are they related to each other? Sometimes I can answer it, and sometimes I can’t.”
Alejandra is a good student. She passed her AP English class this year. However, English isn’t her first language.
“Sometimes I don’t understand the material well, and sometimes I run out of time and I have to wing it. But I try to answer every question,” she said.
The new STAAR English exam, more rigorous than the previous graduation test, is holding up a lot of her peers, too. Ten percent of seniors in Texas – that’s 28,000 kids -- haven’t passed one of the five required tests. Alejandra may not know until next week whether she finally passed, just a few days before graduation next Sunday.
If she passes, she walks. If not, she's going to summer school. And then a committee from her high school -- Grady Spruce in South Dallas -- will decide in August if she gets a diploma.
Her classmate, Marquel Perkins, is in limbo, too.
“I haven’t bought a cap and gown yet because I don’t know if I’m going to graduate. When I do find out that I’m going to graduate, I will buy it," he said.
Marquel took the English STAAR test in March, his second try.
“This time, I think I really got it,” he said.
Of the 250 seniors in his class, 24 haven’t passed one or more STAAR tests. Last year, when Texas required a different test for graduation, there were only five who didn’t pass.
“It’s really upsetting me. I’m already planning what I’m going to do after high school. And if I don’t pass this test it’s going to hold me back,” he said.
Marquel wants to join the Air Force to help support his two kids. He really needs that diploma to enlist.
Since the governor signed the bill last week to give school districts leeway on the tests, many districts have created individual graduation committees for students like Marquel and Alejandra. But Dallas schools won’t look at alternatives until the summer.
“You hate for seniors to not graduate—especially when you met all the graduation requirements, and then this test holds you back," said Darian Montgomery, lead counselor at Grady Spruce.
"A lot of seniors though that once the governor signed SB149, as long as they passed three they could walk across the stage. They thought it would be easy. But the district wants more accountability from the students,” he said.
Students who go to summer school, create special projects, take the STAAR tests yet again in July, and still can’t quite pass, will get a final hearing before a graduation committee.
That's how Montgomery will spend at least part of his summer vacation.