April 26, 2014

Texas’ eighth-graders beginning to draft graduation plans

Texas House Bill 5 changed graduation requirements, decreased number of state tests in high school. (More: See FAQ at end of story.)

All eyes are on eighth graders this year in Texas school districts: The Class of 2018 will be the first to graduate under new state requirements and they are required to start planning career choices now.

Community meetings with educators and families of eighth-graders have been taking place across North Texas. Counselors have been relaying information even as they get instructions from Austin about how to implement the changes. In many districts, the information is starting to be disseminated in English and Spanish.

“It’s not a-wait-and-see game,” said Lora Macaulay, a college and career readiness counselor for Everman schools. “It’s a get-it-all-out-there and react as more stuff comes. We are enrolling our kids right now.”

Across the state, educators and counselors are working to inform students and parents about the new graduation requirements. School districts are producing Power Point presentations and videos that explain House Bill 5, the law passed by the 2013 Texas Legislature that dictates the changes.

An explanation of the new requirements was included in a recent education panel organized by the North Fort Worth Alliance, an organization representing homeowners with students in Northwest and Keller schools that wants to keep parents informed.

“This is an opportunity to get people up to speed on the issues,” said Rusty Fuller, the organization’s president.

House Bill 5 reduced the number of end-of-course state exams required to for students to graduate from high school from 15 to five. The law also established a new graduation plan called the Foundation High School Program that educators have said offers students greater flexibility in preparing for work or college. The State Board of Education adopted new rules for the graduation program earlier this year that include endorsements, which are similar to major areas of study in college.

“The whole purpose, in my opinion, is to have a workforce ready for the 21st century,” said Mario Layne, principal at Charles Baxter Junior High School in the Everman school district.

By the time, today’s 8th-grade students are freshmen, they need to state in writing which endorsement they plan to earn.

“They are going to be the pioneers — the first group,” said Lisa Parker, counselor at Linda Jobe Middle School in Mansfield.

Why endorsements matter

Students earn endorsements by selecting electives and coursework under one of five areas — business/industry, public services, arts/humanities, multidisciplinary studies and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

School counselors said the endorsements help students focus on career or trade ambitions throughout high school. In many ways, the new guidelines take some of the old vocational training ideas and drop them into modern school programs.

Endorsements will appear on high school diplomas.

“What the state is saying is, ‘You know what, kids do need a trade. It is important that they have a trade,’ ” said Macaulay of Everman.

Macaulay said school districts are trying to help expose students to career interests so they are ready for college or trade school.

“That’s what is exciting about House Bill 5,” said Parker of Mansfield schools. “It is giving more voice to the student to make informed choices.”

Mansfield counselors are also talking to students about programs the district already offers that can help gain endorsements. For example, at the Ben Barber Career and Technology Academy, students are already specializing in STEM, public services and business.

“We are really fortunate,” Parker said. “We will be able to offer all five endorsements right off the bat.”

Similarly, some parents in Fort Worth schools believe the endorsements can be folded into the district’s specialized programs which include courses in marketing, arts and agriculture.

Veronica Villegas has three children in Fort Worth schools, including an 8th-grade student at McLean Middle School. Villegas said the endorsements seem to build on the district’s existing Gold Seal Programs of Choice, which also offer academic tracks in various areas of interest.

“They seem to offer more flexibility to students,” Villegas said, adding: “My only concern would be, because there are so many choices, students will need more counseling assistance.”

Counselors said many districts already have similar programs that work with the endorsements. More courses could be added in the future.

“We are fine-tuning what we have, but we are all looking toward the future,” Macaulay said.

Michael Sorum, the Fort Worth school district’s deputy superintendent of leadership, learning and student support, said they recently brought a number of new courses for board approval. The district’s graduation plan is expected to go before the school board in an upcoming meeting.

“When this is finished, we will begin our full court press,” Sorum said alluding to building more awareness among parents.

‘We’ll be the guinea pigs in the experiment’

Many middle school students were taking interest surveys and investigating potential careers before House Bill 5 became a buzz phrase. They have considered education required, future salary and whether there is a projected demand for a job.

Educators said the career lessons can be used now to help students choose endorsements. For example, in Mansfield schools, teacher Stephanie Gaston’s seventh and eighth grade students are taking a career investigations elective and have been planning their high school years by plugging their interests into Texas’ new graduation requirements.

“What is an endorsement?” Gaston asked and waited for a show of hands.

“STEM,” answered the student.

“What is another endorsement?” Gaston asked.

“Business and industry,” answered another student.

The scene in Gaston’s class is an example of how Texas’ House Bill 5 is starting to take shape in classrooms. Next year, Mansfield schools plan to offer a required course called Career Pathways that will include study of the new graduation requirements so students can make educated decisions about their high school paths.

“I think it is important that kids nowadays know what they want to be when they get in high school so they can take the correct classes,” Gaston said. “These kids get a chance now, in seventh and eighth grade, to decide ‘You know, I think I want to do this.’ ”

Despite the seeming pressure of choosing a career path at 13 or 14, several students interviewed said it’s not too early to start planning.

Alex Vo, 14, an 8th-grader at Mansfield’s Jobe Middle School, said the new requirements offer flexibility in choosing electives.

Vo, who is interested in an engineering career, said he is already thinking he will either choose STEM or the business/industry endorsement. And he doesn’t mind making a choice this early in life.

“We have to get ready for high school anyway,” Vo said, adding: “We’ll be the guinea pigs in the experiment.”

Algebra II

Students in certain endorsement tracks can opt to take different math courses designed by the state to replace Algebra II. Only the STEM tract requires Algebra II, which was previously a graduation requirement for most students in Texas.

Vo and several of his classmates said they plan to take Algebra II and they expect most students will do the same because it is required for the distinguished level of achievement track — a series of requirements needed for college.

The distinguished level graduation path best fits the needs of a college-bound student, said counselors. It requires four math credits, including Alegebra II, four science credits and one endorsement — credits colleges will look for on applications.

Students can’t be considered for Texas’ top 10 percent automatic admission to a public state university if they don’t take Algebra II.

At Everman’s Baxter junior high, teacher Jacqlene Jacques preps her students for the future during technology application and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) classes. Even before House Bill 5 was making headlines, she was telling seventh and eighth grade students to think beyond high school.

“You must be the bright star on the Christmas tree,” Jacques tells teens.

Jacques students listened.

Baxter junior high, classmates Noah Navarro, Madison Bural, Chyna Holloway and Brisa Diaz said Algebra II is in their high school plans. The eighth grade students are already mulling endorsements and where they want to go to college.

Navarro said the endorsment with his plans to study law enforcement and finish his schooling quickly. He will likely choose the public services endorsement and keep stay focused on going to college.

“Nobody has really been to college in my family,” he said, adding that education is important to his father. “He wants us to succeed in life.”

Frequently asked questions

What is House Bill 5?

It is a bill passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013 that made major changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Chiefly it: reduces the number of end-of-course exams in high school; and creates a new graduation plan called the Foundation High School Program, which offers students an opportunity to take classes tied to their career plans.

When will the changes take effect?

Today’s eighth grade students will be entering ninth grade this fall. They are the first group required to follow the new graduation rules. Students starting grades 10, 11 and 12 can either continue with the previous “4x4” graduation plan or use the new system.

What is the first step for parents and students?

Parents should attend informational meetings that are being held at school districts across North Texas. The meetings outline the changes and also offer information about upcoming enrollment for eighth-grade students who will be in high school next fall.

Parents should also contact counselors, who can tell them how their district will keep them in the loop. Several school districts have Power Point presentations and videos online that explain House Bill 5.

Generally, how have the graduation requirements changed in terms of coursework?

The biggest change is that students will have to earn at least one endorsement in five study areas.

What is an endorsement?

An endorsement is a specialty area that a high school student chooses in addition to the basic requirements. To earn one, a student must complete: curriculum requirements for the endorsement, four credits in mathematics, four credits in science and two additional elective credits. Counselors said the endorsements allow students to focus their studies on areas in which they plan to build careers. For example, some who wants to be a nurse would take science classes in high school that will help build a foundation for college.

What are the five endorsements available?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

Business and Industry

Public Services

Arts and Humanities

Multidisciplinary Studies

Are there any other major changes?

Algebra II is no longer required for all students. Students who don’t take Algebra II have to take an alternative course. The state is developing an alternative called Algebraic Reasoning and Statistics that is expected to be ready for districts to offer in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Foundation Graduation Plan plus Endorsements

Here are the total courses required for graduation:

•  4 English credits: English I, II, III plus one advanced English.
•  3 Math credits: Algebra I, Geometry plus two advanced math courses. Note: some endorsements may require more math courses.
•  3 Science credits: Biology plus two advanced science courses. Note: Some endorsements may have more science requirements.
•  3 Social Studies: World Geography or World History,
• U.S. History, Government and Economics
• 2 Language credits: (LOTE) or Computer Science
• 1 Physical Education credit
• 1 Fine Arts credit
• 5 elective credits
• 4 Courses in endorsement area


What is distinguished achievement?

Students planning to attend college must earn a distinguished achievement designation upon graduation. The designation must also be earned in order to be eligible for top 10 percent automatic admission to a public Texas university.

In order to earn it, a student must successfully complete four math credits, including Algebra II; four science credits; and endorsement requirements.

What is a performance acknowledgment?

Students can also earn a performance acknowledgment upon graduation for outstanding performance in a dual credit course, bilingualism and biliteracy, on an AP or IB exam or on the PSAT, ACT-Plan, SAT or ACT.

They can also earn one for earning a nationally or internationally recognized business or industry certification or license.

How do I make sure my child signs up for the right courses?

Counselors said the key to success is for parents to work with their children. Parents and students have to specify the endorsement chosen in writing.

What happens if my child decides to change endorsements in the 11th grade?

Counselors said that ideally students won’t change this close to graduation. But if a student has changed plans several times, the multidisciplinary studies endorsement can be used for graduation.

Are this year’s eighth-grade students choosing their endorsement tracks for high school?

Yes, beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, a school district must ensure that each student, on entering ninth grade, indicates in writing an endorsement that the student intends to earn. A district must permit a student to choose, at any time, to earn an endorsement other than the endorsement that the student previously indicated.

Can school districts allow students to graduate through the Foundation Program with only 22 credits and no endorsements?

According to the TEA, a student may graduate under the program without earning an endorsement if, after the student's sophomore year:

1) The student and the student 's parent is advised by a school counselor of the specific benefits of graduating from high school with one or more endorsements; and

2) The student 's parent files written permission with a school counselor on a form allowing the student to graduate under the Foundation High School Program without earning an endorsement

Can districts require students to take courses that are in the distinguished graduation track?

Yes. The districts can always require more than the state plan. Every student will graduate under the foundation plan and then districts and students may choose to require more, according to the TEA.

SOURCES: Texas Education Agency, Everman schools, Fort Worth school district, Garland schools

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