Texas lawmakers put teens in charge of educational rigor

Posted Wednesday, May. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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To launch a nationwide tour focusing on jobs for middle-class Americans, President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit an innovative high school today in Manor, a cotton town turned high-tech hub about 13 miles northeast of the Texas capital.

Manor New Tech High School opened in 2007 with 160 students interested in focusing on the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — in an atmosphere the school’s website describes as one “where learning is student-driven, engaging, and meets the needs of a wide variety of academic abilities.”

Manor Tech is one of two high schools in an 8,000-student district. In April, members of Manor Tech’s robotics team, TEXplosion, took their robot — named Y.O.L.O. (“you only live once”) — to the FIRST Robotics Competition championship at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

In other words, the school is a showcase for the emphasis on rigorous education that Texas lawmakers adopted several years ago when they decided that all public school students should take four years of English, math, science and social studies ito be properly prepared when they graduate from high school.

Gov. Rick Perry, who’s not much of an Obama fan, nonetheless sounded glad to hear that the president was coming back, two weeks after attending the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and a service for victims of the West fertilizer plant explosion.

“Texas’ combination of a balanced budget, low taxes, predictable regulations, meaningful tort reform and education system that promotes STEM fields and prepares our workforce to compete for the jobs of the future is a blueprint for job creation for other states and our nation,” a statement released by Perry’s spokeswoman said.

Maybe someone should tell lawmakers who, in their zeal to reduce a perceived overemphasis on standardized testing, are in the process of dismantling the rigorous focus on STEM they so enthusiastically embraced not long ago.

In House Bill 5, the state House would have students take three credits in math, science and social studies to graduate, though they could take more for a “distinguished” diploma.

The Senate version, adopted Monday, would let students choose a path that requires three years of math, science and social studies. But four years of math would be needed to qualify for certain state scholarships and for a student in the top 10 percent of a graduating class to be eligible for automatic admission to a Texas public university.

Both chambers kept a requirement of four years of English. But both also reduced the number of end-of-course exams required for graduation from 15 to five. That part was the main motivation, the one that caused the most commotion. A conference committee will have to work out the differences. But the result will almost certainly look like lowering standards, not increasing them.

Advocates insist that they’ve come up with a system that’s rigorous and flexible and will prepare students for the workplace awaiting them, while discouraging more from dropping out. Every time lawmakers do an overhaul, they seem to believe they’ve found the elusive magic formula.

For two decades, the policy of the Legislature and the Texas Education Agency has been to push students to ever-higher levels of achievement and hold schools accountable for their progress. Call it legislatively designed and state-enforced academic rigor.

The message of HB5 is that lawmakers want to stop pushing, get out of the way and let students make more of their own choices. Rigor now will be up to students.

What remains is House-Senate agreement on fine details. It’s up to Texas teenagers to decide how hard to push themselves now.

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